Pinning Down's: The Story of Alex Niculescu
Fort Defiance wrestling finished one of its best seasons under coach Gary Kinzer this winter, winning the Valley District title. The Indians did so with a team you might call a melting-pot.
”I pulled kids from everywhere,” said Kinzer. “All over the school."
Kinzer assembled a team of football players, band students and debate club members.
"I love all the different people coming together,” said Cordelia Clark, one of several girls on the team. “I think it's great how accepting everyone is of everyone.”
The team's most unique ingredient is named Alex.
“Last year, I saw him in the library and decided that if I am truly going to take people from all inches of the school, then Alex was one of those kids and one of those inches,” added Kinzer.
Alex Niculescu has Down Syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects one in every 700 babies born in the US.
It is caused by the presence of an extra chromosome, a DNA storage unit. It's associated with physical and mental disabilities.
But none of that keeps Alex off the mat.
"It's inspiring to see someone who, maybe, everyone thinks couldn't do this, actually do it,” said Clark.
“There are some matches his opponents pin him real quick, then there are others where they let him wrestle a little bit,” Kinzer added. “His opponents don't really know what to think of him.”
After practicing with the team last year, Alex competed for the Indians in more than 30 matches.
But it was a tough journey. This summer, he became aware of his condition and Down's became an excuse.
“Up to now, he considered himself, and still considers himself a normal boy,” said Alex's dad Gabriel. “But because he has Down's and has helpers helping him and has had them as long as he's been in school, he's quick to say 'I need help.' But when they put you on that mat, you can't have a helper.”
“He started saying, 'I can't do that, I have Down Syndrome,” said Kinzer. “So, sometimes you have to start thinking outside the box, and by thinking outside the box, we had to make him a box."
His coaches built a wooden box with Alex's name engraved across the top.They gave him pipe cleaners shaped like a chromosome, and before each practice, Alex puts his Down syndrome away.
“This is the chromosome that Coach Kinzer made me,” said Alex, holding the x-shaped object up. “Every night, I come here, I put my chromosome in the box so I don't have excuses in practice."
With his disability locked away in a box, Alex goes to work like every one of his teammates. And this winter, he picked up his first victories.
"No matter what happens at the end, no matter whose arm is raised, the crowd cheers for him because he went out and did it,” said Kinzer.
“I win all matches because I'm a world champion,” Alex added.
But Alex is more than just a wrestler, he's more than just a part of the mismatched wrestling team. He's an inspiration, and a teacher as he's
"Wrestling isn't any easy sport and they get the lesson that if Alex can do this, than I have no right to complain,” said Kinzer. “I'm the coach, but Alex is the best teacher in here. Alex teaches them patience, he teaches them kindness. He teaches them how to love unconditionally. He teaches them how to push each other. He was our missing puzzle piece.”