High-school wrestler A.J. Leitch beats all odds
A.J. Leitch, a wrestler at Sammamish High School, doesn't let being born without the bones in his forearms and kneecaps stop him. "Everyday is a challenge," he says.
Seattle Times staff reporter
BELLEVUE — As soon as the referee slaps the mat and blows his whistle, A.J. Leitch slides out of his chair and begins to prepare.
An assistant coach pulls the straps of the Sammamish High School wrestler's singlet over his shoulders. White ear buds run down to a Zune he clutches like chopsticks wedged between his index and middle fingers. He fumbles with his headgear, trying to slip it on with arms that barely reach higher than the top of his head.
He takes the mat with a bowlegged saunter, like a sheriff from an old western movie.
"Oh, watch this kid," someone in the crowd says.
That's exactly what everyone does as all eyes shift to the 103-pound wrestler. Leitch fights through all three periods. He doesn't win, but he doesn't get pinned. While wrestling in his weight class, that has never happened.
In a sport where success is measured by individual accomplishments, this is a mark to celebrate. Leitch was born without kneecaps and the ulna and radius bones that would run from his elbows to his wrists. The condition is called thrombocytopenia-absent radius or TAR syndrome.
Leitch calls it "his situation."
"Every day is a challenge and you've just got to fight through it and not let anything bring you down," Leitch says.
When the 18-year-old steps onto a wrestling mat, people pay attention. They often underestimate him. They focus on his physical limitations.
After the match ends, a father videotaping for the other team stops shooting and turns to a man sitting next to him.
"Man, that kid's got heart," the father says.
That reaction is common wherever A.J. Leitch wrestles. He wins people over by competing. He impresses opponents with his unorthodox technique, lower-body strength and conditioning.
"Before I wrestled him the first time, I took him lightly," says Issaquah's Max Tickman, who has wrestled Leitch several times. "I thought it would be an easy match, but once I got out there, last year and this year, he's beating me for conditioning. It's amazing. Wrestling with any disadvantage is, I think, amazing. Not only is he wrestling with a disadvantage, he's doing really well."
Leitch was born a month premature. His mother, Sue, went to the hospital at Hill Air Force Base in Utah for an ultrasound. Everything seemed fine. Based on the position of his hands, doctors thought he was just sucking his thumbs.
They sent her home happy. Nothing to worry about. She went into labor later that night.
When Leitch was born, doctors immediately noticed his arms and sent him to another hospital.
"I maybe had five minutes with him," Sue said.
She never panicked.
"OK, he's breathing," she told herself. "OK, we can't do anything about it, so we've just got to deal with it. There are going to be certain things he can't do and there's going to be certain things we're going to have to do for him."
Ask what he can't do and A.J. Leitch can think of only one thing — rock climbing. And that's because he doesn't have enough strength in his hands — yet.
He was in the hospital for about a month and a half and spent six months on a feeding tube. One of the symptoms of TAR syndrome is the body struggles to produce platelets. A.J. had to have several transfusions over the first few months of his life, and for about five years, Sue was constantly on alert for nose bleeds and bruising.
Even as a young child, A.J. did things himself. One day, while Sue ate at a fast-food restaurant with her mother-in-law, he grabbed a French fry from her hand and ate it.
That was the end of the feeding tube.
"I didn't even ask the doctors," she said. "I just went out to the car and slowly pulled the feeding tube out, cleaned him up and that was it. He never had any problems eating after that."
Don't tell A.J. Leitch he can't do something. Doctors said he would never crawl. He found a way.
He even taught himself to stand when he was about 15 months old. He put his forehead on the ground and shot his back end into the air, going up like a step ladder. With his older brother, Marcus, in the house, A.J. didn't get special treatment. He had chores — he cleaned the toilets — and learned to dress himself.
Over the years, he has undergone about 15 surgeries. Some lengthened the bones in his arms. Others straightened his bowed legs.
His scars are a road map through his childhood. One travels from the top of his ankle, over his knee and disappears into the rolled up leg of his jeans.
"I had to learn to walk three times," Leitch said.
Nothing stops him. He does all the things other teenagers do. He skateboards, mountain bikes, plays golf, the guitar and video games even though he has limited use of his thumbs.
He finds a way.
"It's kind of like being an inventor, because I have to think a little bit harder and just really use my head to figure out another way to do something," he said.
Because he grew up solving daily puzzles most people take for granted, he enjoys brain teasers. He can solve the Rubik's Cube and envisions one day working with computers.
Leitch employs this creative approach to everyday life on the wrestling mat.
His arms make it difficult for him to reach an opponent, so he uses his head, shoulders and legs better than most wrestlers. He doesn't get a lot of takedowns, but knows how to pick up escape and reversal points.
"I wish I had a whole team of A.J.s who overcome everything and show up every day with a good attitude, work hard and make the best out of their situation," Sammamish coach Riley McNeal said. "An attitude like that is contagious."
Leitch found wrestling in sixth grade. He wanted to give it a try the next year, but had an arm-lengthening surgery instead. He turned out for the team in eighth grade. It drew him in, giving him what he calls a spiritual experience and the ultimate sense of accomplishment.
He picked up his first varsity win last season, pinning a female opponent. Leitch knows what it's like to be underestimated and he wrestled her like he would anyone else.
"It was amazing," he said of the win. "It was all that hard work finally paying off."
He won four matches as a sophomore and is 1-21 so far this season after wrestling a tougher schedule and spending part of the season in a heavier weight class.
"He's had some rough seasons and that's what I love about the kid," teammate Val Vautier said. "He's never given it up."
Leitch's shoulders hit the mat for the first time last week. He stepped up to 112 pounds for a match against Bellevue's Matt Casimes, giving up 12 pounds to help his team. Bellevue wrestlers were making side bets with junk food that their teammate wouldn't be able to end the match with a pin.
As hard as Leitch works, there are times when he has to slow down. He doesn't have kneecaps, adding stress on the other tendons and ligaments in his knees. If he spends more than a few hours walking, pain forces him to sit down and take medication to deaden the throbbing.
Still, he's not ready to have his knee reconstructed.
"I would rather have a little bit of pain and be very active than get my knees fixed and have no pain, but be stuck in a wheelchair," he said.
He never makes excuses. He doesn't feel sorry for himself. He finds something that works and moves on.
"He's got the unique ability to just kind of overwhelm a person, because of his personality," his uncle, Chad Potter, said. "He just makes people quickly forget (his disability)."
Word of the kid who refuses to quit is spreading. One day Potter, a high-school teacher and coach in Kennewick, was talking to a wrestling fan. Potter started to tell his nephew's story, but the fan interrupted him.
He pulled out an iPhone and replayed an inspirational video he recorded at a tournament.
"Is this him?" he asked.
It was A.J. Leitch. The boy who found a way to crawl even though doctors said he couldn't. The teenager who taught himself to walk three times. The wrestler who is almost impossible to pin.
Mason Kelley: 206-464-8277 or firstname.lastname@example.org