Monday, December 29, 2008

From seizures to blindness, the story of a great wrestler

It doesn't matter whether it's the championship of a holiday wrestling event or a midweek dual match.

Debbie Gunter gets emotional any time her son, Coventry High freshman Jesse Gunter, walks onto the mat.

''I'll be crying at the beginning, screaming and laughing during the match, and crying again after the match,'' she said. ''There is simply so much adrenaline flowing every match, I can't stand it because I love so much what is happening. Jesse amazes us every time he's out there.''

She is not an ordinary wrestling mom. The tears are of joy — and not because her powerfully built son has been so successful.

It's not because Jesse is 15-1 with 10 pins wrestling at 103 and 112 pounds after he dispatched opponents from Ellet and Firestone in less than two minutes in a triangular match a week ago. And it's not because her 15-year-old is becoming a part of the strong tradition at Coventry and is projected to do well when tournament time comes in March.

No, Debbie cries because she believes she is witnessing a miracle every time.

Jesse Gunter is blind.

''Jesse's story is an incredible life story,'' Coventry coach Keith Shinn said. ''Hopefully, it will inspire others to get over whatever is holding them back and enable them to have as much passion for life and wrestling as Jesse does. He is truly an amazing young man.''

Sports, the Gunters were told by neurologists and pediatricians, were something that Jesse would never participate in. ''Most of the doctors told us he'd never be able to walk or even talk, that he wouldn't be able to do much of anything,'' Debbie said.

''I thank God every day. We never had the courage to dream that he could do what he's doing. He's an inspiration to all of us, especially those of us who were there when he was born.''

Jesse's battle began before he took his first breath.

Debbie went into labor, and Tony Gunter took her to Barberton Citizens Hospital.

Everybody expected a normal delivery.

It wasn't.

''I was pushing and pushing the entire day,'' Debbie said. After 16 hours, Debbie underwent an emergency Caesarean section. Jesse weighed 9 pounds, 2 ounces.

''Jesse's little head was all bruised,'' Debbie said. ''I was very upset because that was my baby. And I knew something was wrong. I'm a mom.''

The Gunters became more concerned a few hours later when Jesse began having seizures.

He was rushed to Akron Children's Hospital to undergo tests. The results were not what any parent would want to hear. ''The doctors told us he suffered brain damage and part of the brain was dead,'' Debbie said.

''We were 23 at the time. There were all kinds of self-doubts cropping up. I was miserable because my baby had been hurt.''

New hope emerges

For three years, the Gunters took Jesse to neurological and pediatric experts who said there was little anyone could do. The Gunters moved to Virginia to live with Tony Gunter's parents and found a savior in Dr. Dawn Forbes of Lewis Gale Hospital in Salem, Va.

''Dr. Forbes loved Jesse; she believed in him from the first day she saw him,'' Tony Gunter said. ''She just told us that whatever we do, don't baby him — treat him normal like every other kid, and he'll grow up to be like every other kid.''

Jesse is blind in one eye and has had two surgeries on his other eye to help stabilize it.

He has no peripheral vision in that eye. Think of his vision this way: if you made a small circle the size of a dime with your forefinger and thumb and put it in front of your eye, that's what he sees.
''He has total tunnel vision in the one, and he'll never be able to drive,'' Tony Gunter said. ''He never can hold a job that includes detailed work. He never can operate heavy machinery.''

That ruled out most sports.

''I can see a basketball, but the players in a game are a blur,'' Jesse said. ''I can pitch a baseball toward a hitter, but I can't catch or field a ball. . . . I was disappointed, but I didn't give up because I always wanted to do a sport.''

When the family moved back to the Akron area in 1996, Jesse began taking karate classes, earning a black belt in two and a half years.

''That made me feel great about myself,'' Jesse said.

He moved into wrestling three years ago. He was a seventh-grader at Coventry Junior High, and it was the only school-sponsored sport in which he could compete.

''The thing I love most about wrestling is that I can really push my body. My body can support me in wrestling, and it's a thrill for me,'' he said.

Top of class, team

He was 22-8 as a seventh-grader and 23-2 in eighth grade. He also won numerous invitationals before earning a spot on the Coventry varsity team this year.

In school, he has a 4.0 grade-point average taking a regular academic schedule.

''I can't see anything on a blackboard or TV screen,'' he said. ''But the teachers have been great. They give me extra handouts that show the things that the rest of the class can see.''

His only wrestling loss in 16 matches came against highly regarded Beachwood junior Alex Dronzek, who is ranked second in the state at 103 and won 6-0.

''I think my opponents underestimate what I can do,'' Jesse said.

Because opponents must maintain contact with him in matches, Jesse says he has learned to practice in a way other wrestlers do not. ''I use that to my advantage,'' he said. ''They have to use another style in the match when we're both on our feet, but it's normal for me.''

Gunter doesn't rely on leverage — he stands 5-foot-1.

But he is developed physically for his age and size. He has an Olympic weight set and wrestling mat in the basement of his home and is constantly working out. He outdid all of his teammates in a fitness test during preseason conditioning.

''Jesse blew away the competition,'' said Shinn, now an Akron Police Department patrolman and a former Coventry standout who was a key contributor as a 189-pound state qualifier on the Comets' 1993 Division III state championship team.

Jesse did 130 pushups in two minutes. He did 44 full pull-ups before fatiguing. Both were Coventry wrestling team records.

Shinn said Jesse has more to learn. ''We're putting in a new move just about every day because we all know that at some point — districts, state — he's going to run into some outstanding 18-year-olds.''

Jesse has set ambitious goals. ''I want to be a four-time state champion and a four-time national champion in college,'' he said. ''And I want to be an Olympian. I know that no blind wrestler has ever competed in the Olympics. But that doesn't bother me.

''I can't see, but I can dream. And I'm determined to live those dreams.''

Bill Lilley can be reached at 330-996-3811 or


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