Bilateral Amputee Named in Top 25 NCAA Moments: College Wrestling Champion Nick Ackerman

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The 2001 NCAA Division III Wrestling Championship was determined in the last seven seconds. After dominating the first two periods of the match, leading nine to two, Nick Ackerman was getting tired. Knowing it was time to "take his shot," the 174-lb. wrestler grabbed his opponent's leg and held on, bringing him down and claiming the title by 1311. The packed audience rose to their feet and applauded for over two minutes as Ackerman lay on the mat and savored the moment. Ackerman, also voted the tournament's Outstanding Wrestler, finished his season with 38 wins and only four losses.

Photo courtesy of Simpson College.
Photo courtesy of Simpson College.

That's the story 26-year old Nick Ackerman, CP, remembers and would have liked to share five years ago. He was disappointed when the throng of reporters only asked about his missing limbs.

"I didn't want to be known as the best wrestler without legs. I just wanted to be the best wrestler," Ackerman recalls.

In March, the NCAA chose Ackerman's defeat of the defending champion as one of 25 defining moments in its 100-year history. Presented by ESPN in 30-second vignettes, the 25 moments also include the first NCAA "final four" basketball championships in 1939, tennis great Arthur Ashe's big wins in 1965, and the legendary 1979 national basketball title game pitting Larry Bird against Magic Johnson.

"It's a pretty big deal. The names in that list of 25 are icons in athletics, to even be put in the same category is an honor not to be taken lightly," Ackerman says.

The ESPN piece lauds Ackerman's feat: "In a life defined by overcoming obstacles...The wrestler that would not be called disabled was instead called a national champion."

In 2001, he couldn't have predicted the notoriety the moment would bring, quipping to reporters, "I'm not the only guy who won a title; go interview someone else."

But, today he recognizes the inspirational opportunities that have arisen from the new publicity, saying, "My perspective now is that I can help a lot more people. I can take this and use it to help others."

Becomes Prosthetist, Helps Others

In fact, by becoming a prosthetist, Ackerman has dedicated his life to helping other amputees. An environmental biology major at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, Ackerman desired a career as a park ranger. Then he received a goal-altering phone call from a 27-year-old man who had just lost a leg in a car accident and wanted advice from Ackerman on everything from showering, to driving, to girls.

"He was looking to me for answers, and I was able to provide that," Ackerman says. "I wanted people to see that I'm doing normal things like hunting and fishing. [The disability] is not something that defines who you are. There's nothing that I would be able to do better with legs and so many things I enjoy without them--wrestling for one. I also enjoy the fact that my feet never get cold when I'm ice-fishing or hunting."

Yet, he recoils at the "Mr. Inspiration" title with which many have tried to label him. "Amputees see doing normal things as a goal. They're not trying to be inspirational or encouraging; they just want to have meaningful functionality and go back to work."

Because doctors had to amputate both his legs below the knee when he was 18 months old to stop the spread of bacterial meningitis, Ackerman has never known a life with lower limbs. Ackerman, who removes his prosthetic legs before wrestling, says, "I always thought of myself as normal. I wanted to compete at the normal level."

Family, Prosthetist Positive Influences

He was influenced early on by his parents who told him, "If you want something, you've got to go get it," and his older brother, a three-time All-American college athlete.

Ackerman was also greatly influenced by his prosthetist, Gary Cheney, CPO, FAAOP. "He's been a role model and like a second dad," he says. Cheney had been the one to ask him to reconsider his career choice and look into working with him as a prosthetist. After completing the prosthetist certification program at Northwestern University, Chicago, Illinois, Ackerman joined Cheney at American Prosthetics and Orthotics in Davenport, Iowa. Now working for the same company that made his legs for 22 years, Ackerman makes his own prostheses and says, "I get the same excitement out of fitting a good socket as winning a wrestling match."

Though mostly gratifying, some aspects of his career can be frustrating. "The worst patient is one who's unmotivated. I'll never work harder for someone than they want to work for themselves," he says.

Since the third grade when Ackerman started wrestling, he says he's always had high expectations for himself. "I've always wanted to be the best. I'm far from that [as a prosthetist]. But, I was also far from the national title my freshman year in college! With the right goals, right work ethic, and surrounding yourself with the right people, good things will happen."

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