PITTSBURGH, Pa.: Michael Kemerer looked a little out of place Thursday afternoon at Pittsburgh’s PPG Paints Arena (Photo Credit Hawkeye Sports).
The Iowa wrestler was standing behind the 100-level seating area. Fans were milling around before the second round of the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, and Kemerer was in street clothes.
That’s not how Kemerer envisioned this weekend playing out. Not by a long shot. Especially after racking up third and fourth-place finishes his previous two years wrestling in a Hawkeye singlet.
But, injuries slowed Kemerer’s pursuit of a national championship. Not only did he suffer a shoulder setback a year ago in the fourth-place match, he tore his ACL in October and re-injured his shoulder, which took him out of competition for this season and reduced him to the role of spectator.
“It’s tough,” Kemerer said. “For one thing, I’ve never really had an injury like this, so it’s the longest I’ve gone without wrestling.
“Then, just seeing guys out there. I mean, you are happy for them, because they are going through it, but I miss it because I love being out there wrestling. So, it’s tough to watch … I just wish I was out there.”
It doesn’t help that this year’s NCAA Wrestling Championships are being held 20 minutes away from where Kemerer grew up.
Kemerer attended Franklin Regional in Murrysville, Pa., and was a four-time state finalist and one-time champion. Coming back home to shine in front of family and friends was something he was looking forward to.
But, that isn’t how it panned out. Sports is an unpredictable proposition, and even the best laid plans don’t go as expected.
“Even back when I made the decision that I was going to miss this year, it was like, ‘Oh, man, Nationals is in Pittsburgh,’” Kemerer said. “As soon as I found out they were going to be there, I was stoked.
“It was like, ‘That’s the year … I’m definitely going to be ready to wrestle.’ God has plan, and I just trust in that. I get to experience a different angle cheering these guys on.
“It’s good, too, in that I wouldn’t get a chance to walk around and talk to people I grew up with, so I’ve done that. There are positives in it, but I would love to be out there.”
Wrestling, like any sport, is a mental game. And being forced out of competition can take a toll on an athlete and send them in the wrong direction.
Not Kemerer. The Hawkeyes ace is strong mentally and has an unwavering faith that has helped him push through any doubts and stay positive while others around him are competing at a high level.
“It’s one of those things that happens,” Kemerer said. “I bounced back from it pretty quick, and said, ‘What can I do to move forward?’ I could still get better every day, it’s just a different time line.
“Now, I’m not training for Pittsburgh, I’m training for Minneapolis. My training is different now than it will be in six months. Staying close keeps me motivated. Seeing these guys wrestle — I want to be out there wrestling — but it reminds you how much you love it when it’s taken away from you.”
It doesn’t hurt that Kemerer has remained close to the program and even rehabs in the wrestling room while the team practices.
That’s huge. It allows Kemerer to stay engaged with the program, communicate with coaches and teammates, and even help out where needed.
“A big thing people have told me is to stay close,” Kemerer said. “You learn a lot in wrestling by coaching and from that aspect. If I see a teammate doing something, I say, ‘Hey, you might want to try this,’ just helping a guy.
“It’s a new perspective, and I think it’s good. Ultimately, it’s going to help my wrestling, because I can step back and see the whole process unfold. It’s good to be in the room and be close.”
Still, it’s not as close as Kemerer wants. Nothing beats being on the mat, getting your hand raised, and sharing it with your team.
Kemerer, who is applying for a medical redshirt, understands it’s going to take time. And when he finally does get back on the mat, he wants to be at his best.
“It’s a progression,” he said. “You get the surgery, there is a little rehab stuff, and then you start advancing and advancing. There is a protocol with it, and our trainers and coaches are awesome.
“I’m not rushing back for the postseason or anything like that, so it’s just being smart and taking it slow. I got to the point where I was able to start doing stuff, like biking hard and more strength stuff. I just tried to be patient the first couple of weeks, because I didn’t want to do anything dumb.”
Said Kemerer, “If I’m getting the surgery, I want to do it right. If I’m doing rehab, I want to do it right. It’s just a progression, and it’s going well.
“If I could wrestle today, I would wrestle today. I would have wrestled yesterday if I could. I’m just grateful when I can wrestle again.”