— To surrender a dream leaves life as it is and not as it could be. Nick Ackerman wanted to be the best college wrestler in the land regardless of the fact that he didn’t have a leg to stand on.
“My knees,” he says, “are the same as everybody else’s feet.”
As a boy growing up in Colfax, Iowa, Nick tried all sorts of sports — fishing, baseball, soccer, even football — on artificial legs. “I was the only guy to break his leg in the first half and play in the second,” Nick says with a grin. “My dad went home and got a different set of legs, an old set. And I put ’em on and went out there and finished the game.”
His mom, Cindy, allowed Nick to take risks. “I didn’t want him to be stopped from doing things,” she says, “so I went to the teachers, to the coaches, everybody I could — to tell them, ‘Let him get hurt.’ ” She figured bumps and falls could be fixed — but not letting Nick try could do permanent damage.
“I always thought I was the normal one,” Nick says with a grin. “I used to break the legs off my G.I. Joe action figures, to make ’em cool like me.”
An amputee at 18 months
Nick’s legs were the center of a life-or-death battle when he was a baby. At 18 months, he contracted a deadly form of meningitis that put him in a coma. “By the time we got to the hospital,” Cindy recalls, “his skin was black.”
Doctors had to amputate his legs below the knee to save his life. “When you almost lose your son,” Cindy says, “you have a whole different perspective on life. And so I’ve celebrated every day of his life since.”
Cindy was in the stands 10 years ago when Nick, then a 21-year-old senior at Simpson College in Iowa, wrestled his way to the NCAA championships. His opponent had not had a loss in 63 matches. And no one without legs had ever won.
Nick was thinking about a line from his favorite poem: “You are the handicap you must face. You are the one to choose your place.” “Everybody has some obstacle to overcome,” Nick explains. “Mine’s just more visual.”
Not only did Nick win: He was chosen the outstanding college player in the country, and during the NCAA’s centennial, his win was picked as one of the 25 defining moments in our sports history (the list also includes Jesse Owens’ four world records in 1935, Doug Flutie’s “Hail Mary” touchdown pass in 1984 and tennis great Arthur Ashe’s big wins in 1965).
The champ had planned to become a park ranger after graduation. Growing up, he spent much of his time tromping through fields and fishing, so working with nature seemed the perfect choice for a country kid. But sometimes, when you climb the ladder of success, you find it’s been leaning against the wrong wall.
So Nick went to Northwestern University Medical School instead, and learned how to make prosthetic legs. Now, at 31, he’s set himself a new goal: He wants to be the go-to guy for difficult patients — the patients everyone else is having trouble with.
Tools of a champion
Randy Light drove all day from his home in South Bend, Ind., to Nick's clinic in Davenport, Iowa, so his 8-year-old adopted son, Evan, could get a special pair of shoes. “Other prosthetists could help Evan walk; Nick understood the life Evan dreamed,” Randy explains.
In some people we see a mirror of ourselves. Evan, now 11, wants to be the best all-around athlete in the land. He already plays tennis, football, soccer, basketball, baseball and golf; now he wants to wrestle. “He had a set of duct-tape foam pads that he wrapped around the ends of his legs,” Nick recalls.
Evan lost his feet in an accident that also took his mom. The Light family adopted him in 2001, from an orphanage in Calcutta. A year later, they adopted his cribmate after that boy’s placement with another family fell through. They already had three teenage daughters; they just wanted some boys.
It’s clear the Lights found someone special. “What do you tell other kids when they ask, ‘How’d you lose your legs?’ ” I ask him.
Evan grins. “Mostly I tell ’em a shark bite.”
Nick crafted a couple of pairs of customized wrestling shoes for Evan. Evan’s dad drove all day — five times — to make sure they fit.
“God picked Evan up from the other side of the world, from Calcutta, India, and put him in our home in South Bend,” Randy points out. “Davenport, Iowa, is not that far.” Not for a beacon of hope.
Evan needed to meet a man who had sailed through life’s storms and excelled. “If I had an opportunity to have my legs, I wouldn’t take it,” Nick tells him. “I wouldn’t! I like where I’m at.”
Coincidentally, Nick’s grandfathers also lost their legs, in accidents. “Nicholas was put on this earth to live the life his grandfathers couldn’t live,” his mom, Cindy, says.
Back then, artificial limbs were so limiting. Now, they are the tools of a champion.