Young wrestler conquers mat
to pin down sport
Growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania, Ben Jackson began nursing a serious love of sports, early.
He would watch sports on television, and also took part in many physical activities like riding his bicycle and playing basketball. For the most part, Jackson lived the life of a typical middle class American boy.
But Ben, now 20, also knew he was different back then. Diagnosed with spastic Cerebral Palsy as an infant, Ben came to understand that his physical condition would set him apart from his peers. Often the only child with a disability in his class, Ben sometimes looked for something besides his disability to help him stand out and feed what he calls his “competitive nature.”
He would find that sense of confidence in athletics; specifically, in wrestling.
“I’ve always been competitive, and I wanted to work at something, and perfect it,” said Ben, who is now a student at North Hampton Community College in Bethlehem, Penn. “I remember one time I went to my occupational therapist, and she showed me how to tie my shoes. I was up half the night pushing myself to tie the shoes correctly.”
That stick-to-itiveness was a big part of Ben’s success in wrestling and in life. Wrestling allowed Ben to transform himself from a budding athlete that didn’t win a competition in his first year, to one that collected trophies and accolades for his sparring abilities in the remaining years.
And, within that development, a seed of self-confidence and hope for the future was nurtured in large part because he participated in an aspect of education that is often closed to students with a disability – sports.
Suiting up for sports
Ben is the son of Margaret and Pedro McEachron. He grew up in Tobyhanna, Penn., which is south of Philadephia and close to New York City. He has an older sister Alise and a younger sister Alexandria.
Growing up, Ben admits he was shy. Sometimes, he was the only student in his class or school that had a disability. He longed to find a way to express himself.
In the seventh grade, Ben found that outlet. His school was recruiting wrestlers for the wrestling team. Ben thought that wrestling may be the sport in which he could make his mark.
“I was attracted by the physical aspect of the sport,” Ben remembered. “I also liked how it made you challenge yourself mentally and physically.”
Ben’s initial wrestling attempts did not turn out successful, but in the end, that lack of achievement the first year made him recommit to his physical training.
“It wasn’t always easy being the only disabled person in my class of 300 people.”
– Benjamin Jackson
“The biggest challenge I had to face was building my self-confidence,” he said. “My first year competing, I didn’t win any matches. But once I really started working on my regimen, I came back the second year and I won my first match.”
“I’ve always been competitive, and I wanted to work at something, and perfect it… My first year competing, I didn’t win any matches. But once I really started working on my regimen, I came back the second year, and I won my first match. What sports taught me is that you can build your body, but it’s important to follow it by building your mind. They go hand in hand.”
– Benjamin Jackson
From there, Ben would compete in about 12 matches a year, then in the post-season tournaments, district meets, and individual competitions. By the time Ben entered Pocono Mountain West High School, he was primed to take wrestling to the next level.
“I ended up competing in all sorts of tournaments, and from there I just gradually improved my wrestling over time,” he said.
Gregory Theony, Ben’s coach for four years at Pocono Mountain said his young charge was one of only two students with a disability that participated in the wrestling program under his tenure. He said his approach with Ben was simple: He treated him like the rest of the team members.
“My goal was not to treat him differently,” he said. “I had the advantage of knowing Ben had wrestled in junior high, so he had a basic understanding of the sport. He just needed to build up his skills and adapt – he figured it out on his own.
“The only real accommodation we had to make – and this was because he had trouble staying stable for long periods of time – is that he had to sit on the scale instead of stand,” Theony added.
Soon, Ben’s weight inched up from about 90 pounds to 119 pounds, and he became a more effective wrestler. Ben’s favorite wrestling move is the “single-leg takedown,” which is when one wrestler grabs his opponent by the legs and ankle and picks him up, forcing the wrestler to the mat
Pinning down success
Inclusion in sports brought Ben many benefits he might not have otherwise enjoyed, Ben said. His time as a wrestler helped the shy teen come out of his shell, and it brought strength to his body and his mind.
“I think that since I have CP, one of the biggest aspects of my everyday life is the mental aspect of daily living,” he said, “So, when I began wrestling and attending occupational therapy and physical therapy, I learned that the biggest hurdle is the mental things.
“What sports taught me is that you can build your body, but it’s important to follow it by building your mind,” he added. “They go hand in hand.”
Ben said his confidence soared when he found success on the mat.
“It gave me a lot of self-esteem,” he said. “It wasn’t always easy being the only disabled person in my class of 300 people. I found that sports was a way for me to express myself physically.”
One benefit of being on the wrestling team was the camaraderie among the team members, Ben said.
“I made a lot of friends,” he said. “That was really great because it was a support system.”
Other factors that have been a vital source of support for Ben are his parents, Pedro and Margaret, and his coaches.
“My family is a great support system,” he said. “They told me to go for it – if you feel open to a challenge, go for it and don’t be afraid. I’ve always looked to my family for support.”
Growing up, Ben’s parents insisted he attend mainstream classes at school because they didn’t want to limit him. Ben said that also made a difference for him.
Theony said Ben’s experiences on the mat serve as a powerful lesson to people with disabilities that wish to engage in sport.
“What made Ben successful is the idea that ‘I can do this – disability is not a disability,’” he said. “Ben already knew he was different; I didn’t have to tell him that. Ben’s personality made it so much easier because he was such a coachable kid. He worked harder than any kid in the room.”
Today, Ben is a busy college student. He is majoring in speech and communications and hopes to become a motivational speaker in the future.
“I want to work on my public speaking and really build my voice because I want to share my story,” he said. “I would like to speak about disability issues.”
Even though his competitive wrestling days may be behind him, he still returns to his high school.
“I go back to mentor new wrestlers, so I do see it in my future,” he said.
Ben is also taking on a new sport.
“One goal I have is to compete in the 2016 Paralympics,” he said. “But they do not have wrestling. One of my goals is to become an ambassador for wrestling’s inclusion, but I’m pursuing weightlifting.
“Right now I’ve been in contact with them so I can find a coach,” he said. “We’ll see where it goes from there.”
If Ben could tell teens with disabilities who are being discouraged from participating in sports one thing, it would be to ignore naysayers.
“I would tell them not to be afraid to find something new,” he said. Don’t be limited to other people’s perceptions.”
Athletes with Cerebral Palsy
Athletes are mythic figures that have used their bodies to achieve an enviable level of fitness. Although most people don’t associate individuals with Cerebral Palsy with sports and other acts of endurance, these athletes use their bodies to achieve feats of physicality that are only surpassed by personal satisfaction and confidence.
- Sam Broughton – Martial Arts
- Drew Dees – Shot Put
- James “Rooster” Gallion – Parkour
- Dick and Rick Hoyt – Triathletes
- Benjamin Jackson – High School Sports
- Cody and Cayden Long – Triathletes
- Linda Mastandrea – Paralympian
- Ryan McGraw – Yoga
- Kyle and Brent Pease – Triathletes
- John Quinn – Navy
- Jack Runser – Wrestler and Bodybuilder
- Jerry Traylor – Mountain Climber
- Marty Turcios – Golfer
- Ahkeel Whitehead – Paralympic Hopeful
- Duncan Wyeth – Paralympian