Kyle Ott Beats The Odds In Quest For Wrestling Success
Illini All-American Still Among Nation’s Elite Despite Near Career Ending Injury
Wrestlers learn at a young age that their sport is one of the most physical you can involve yourself in. And many have experienced severe injuries in their career. Overcoming the adversity and extreme stress on the body is almost an expectation – a so-called badge of honor. For one Illinois wrestler, the sport became such a part of his being that even 12 knee surgeries can’t keep him from excelling at the highest level. The account of Illini junior 125-pound All-American Kyle Ott is one that many in the wrestling community think they have heard. But they haven’t heard the whole tale …
Like many wrestlers, Ott began his career at a very young age. As a four-year-old, Ott’s parents, Mark and Sherry, got him involved in the sport that was a big passion of their own. At an even younger age, Ott could be found running around the high school gyms of his father’s Springfield North wrestling teams. Ott usually donned a generic red and blue singlet with the letters “KO”, an obvious representation of his name, but it became a foreshadowing of his dominance in Ohio wrestling.
“I think I was destined to become a wrestler at birth,” Ott reflects. “My mother was a fan of the sport and my father coached high school teams when I was young. My mom started the youth club team in my area, and I got involved.”
Ott excelled immediately at every level. He made two Cadet world teams and placed second, earning All-American honors at Fargo Nationals. As a sophomore at Wayne High School, he won his first Ohio State Title. Things seemed to be smooth sailing when he took home his second individual championship as a junior. That’s when adversity struck Ott. During the summer after his junior year he underwent a routine surgery to repair a meniscus tear in his knee. Just days after his release from the hospital, he began to notice abnormal bruising and discoloration around his kneecap. Advised to wait until his one-week checkup, Ott’s doctors were stunned to find the skin above his knee to be blackened and dead, and the cause is still unknown to this day. The prognosis for Ott was serious – possible long-term damage that would end his wrestling career and potentially keep him from taking part in casual sporting events and running.
“We called the orthopedic surgeon and at first they thought that I was just healing slowly. I was losing feeling in my knee, experiencing extreme pain and continuous fever. They referred me to a plastic surgeon and the things he was telling us sounded bogus, so my mom looked for a second opinion.”
And who they found was Dr. R. Michael Johnson out of Dayton, Ohio.
“The first thing Dr. Johnson did was ask me to turn my head the other way,” Ott said. “When I did he started poking my knee with a pin. When I looked back there was blood seeping out of my knee and I didn’t feel a thing. He said the skin was dead all the way down to my kneecap.
“In that first visit, he talked to me about my life and saw how important wrestling was to me. He told me they would specialize a plan for me so that it might be possible to wrestle again. Dr. Johnson told me it would be tough on me and then he suggested that I read Lance Armstrong’s book to help me through it.”
The plan Dr. Johnson had in mind was something he had learned in medical school based on techniques used in World War II. But the thought of leading a normal life and getting back on the wrestling mat had Ott willing to take the risks. The plan was a series of surgeries that would be spread out over five months involving major skin graphs and replacements. For those five months, Ott attended school in a wheelchair, on crutches and toward the end of the process, with a cane.
“I actually got my homecoming date because of the wheelchair,” Ott jokes. “For months I would be excused from class a couple of minutes early so I could get to the next class and I could pick someone to help me. I finally asked one girl who wheeled me a lot if she would want to go to homecoming with a guy in a wheelchair.”
For Ott, the fall semester of his senior year meant many trips in and out of the hospital for surgery, followed by intense physical therapy. It began with the removal of the dead skin from the kneecap, which took several procedures. Dr. Johnson used a sponge-like device that sat atop Ott’s knee to remove the toxins. Because of the pounding the knee takes during the sport of wrestling, it was imperative to find skin that was thick and durable. The doctors had limited areas to select skin for the graph. They decided on the upper inner thigh. In one surgery, skin from the inner thigh was pinched and stitched together to create an additional tube for blood flow to the knee.
“It was kind of disgusting to look at,” Ott said. “You could take your hand and slide it between the the extra skin and my leg. I was always nervous to clean it because it was such a large open wound. It made me queasy. You could see right through to my knee cap.”
That procedure set up yet another in-patient stay in which a saucer-size cut was made above the pinched skin. Then the entire portion was used as the cover for the knee cap. The extra skin then served as the new blood source for the skin flap. Ott estimates that his final surgery, which equaled 10 in all beginning in July of 2000, was completed in November of that same year. All throughout the process, Ott had been working with physical therapists to begin the regaining of his range of motion.
Ott’s style of wrestling as a light weight, is one of quickness and speed. Ott is known for his ability to make lightning-fast moves and is considered one of the quickest collegiate wrestlers.
“I wish people could have seen him in high school before the surgeries,” Sherry Ott, Kyle’s mother said. “People think he is quick now, but he was at another level back then. I don’t think people realize just how much he lost when he went through his surgeries and how much he has been able to regain. This has been a hard process on him and I am amazed by his strength.”
His physical therapy involved forcing Ott’s knee into repeated bent and straight positions. Something he couldn’t do on his own.
“For many years, I had a very limited range of motion,” Ott said. “I tried not to get frustrated. I needed to stay patient and have faith. Even today I still can’t fully bend and straighten my leg.”
Just as it seemed Ott’s hospital stays had concluded, he began to notice more discoloration around the edges of his new knee. Afraid that the process had been for not, he immediately returned to the plastic surgeon. He discovered that blood was not adequately getting to the outer portion of the graph. One more surgery was needed to perform yet another skin graph on the upper outside of his knee. To this day the extra set of stitches and overlapping skin is visible to the naked eye.
As a senior at Wayne High School, Ott longed to get back on the mat and compete. He had goals of winning his third state title and ultimately earning a Division I scholarship.
“Before my injury, many college coaches were recruiting me,” Ott remembers. “After everything that happened to me, some coaches quit calling, others made phony excuses and some cancelled their visits to my house. Illinois was one of the schools that stayed with me throughout the ordeal. Coach (Mark) Johnson took a risk and signed me in the fall before I had even fully recovered.”
Around December of 2000, Ott learned that he was forbidden from practicing with his current team. Letters had been circulating between the super intendant and the school trainer of the risk Ott presented to himself if he continued wrestling. Frustrated by this brand-new setback, Ott turned to a coach he had become close to during years of camps and summer workouts, St. Paris Graham’s assistant Jeff Jordan. So at Christmas break, Ott left his school of three and a half years and headed toward the country.
“It was tough to leave my friends, but I knew I would make new ones,” Ott said. “Plus I really liked the coaches. The change was actually exciting. It was definitely different. Wayne was such a large school and St. Paris was smaller and more rural.”
One of the most positive things to come out of the move was meeting Lesley Howell, now his girlfriend of over four years.
Ott began the grueling comeback and the story finally takes a positive turn for Ott as he went on to win the coveted third state title – goal number one. That year he also went on to win High School Nationals. He accomplished goal number two as he signed a letter of intent to attend the University of Illinois.
“I knew Illinois had a great academic reputation,” Ott said. “I had heard so many great things about the coaches. My high school coach wrestled against (Illinois assistant) Coach (Jim) Heffernan in college and said he was not only a great wrestler, but a great coach. Coach (Mark) Johnson reminded me a lot of Coach Jordan. After my visit, I knew it would be a great fit for me.”
During his first season in Champaign, while redshirting, Ott realized the saga of his knee injury was not quite ready to end. Frustration set in as his range of motion began to diminish once again. An MRI revealed golf-ball sized scar tissue build up in his knee. Once more, a surgery was needed to remedy the situation. The viscious cycle of surgery and therapy started all over. That’s when Ott began working with the Elite Seat, a large apparatus with a pulley that Ott had to administer himself despite great physical pain. To this day he holds his therapists, Brian Mourphy, Jamie Rodman and John Cornielissen, in the highest regard.
After what seemed to be a complete recovery, Ott earned the starting spot for the Illini at 125 pounds beating out NCAA Qualifier Twan Pham in the process. He was posting great numbers as a rising star in the lineup. He was ranked 10th in the country with a record of 18-6 when another knee cartilage tear forced him to injury default in a home dual against Michigan. Another injury – another surgery.
Ott is now in his second full year in the Illinois lineup at 125 pounds and ranked No. 2 nationally. He is 14-2 as the team completes the regular season portion of the schedule. Last season, Ott cruised through the NCAA field to make the finals in his first year at the national tournament. His goals have now changed. Number one to win an NCAA title and number two to become a doctor.
“This experience has been like a blessing in disguise,” Ott said. “I already had an interest in medicine, but my whole situation allowed me to meet a lot of doctors. I realize that I really enjoy what they do and I have learned about a lot of the different aspects of medicine. Dr. K. Donald Shelbourne, a knee specialist in Indianapolis, has been a huge mentor to me. He has given me opportunities to shadow him and watch surgeries, something not too many people get to do outside of med school.”
As for his thoughts on his Illini team … “This team is so unselfish. I have been on teams that have been good, but not very close and they have suffered. The group of guys on this team really care about each other. We know how hard the next works and we truly want the other to succeed.”
Years of hard work and adversity are tested each day for Ott. He continues to feel pain and a bottle of Aleve is not far from his side on days he wrestles, not to mention the continuous therapy. But wrestling has been a major part of his life for over 18 years and no injury, no setback is going to keep him from the dreams that lie so close within his grasp.
Kyle Ott and the second-ranked Illini wrestling team begin their postseason quest for greatness with the Big Ten Championships on March 5-6 and the NCAA Championships on March 17-19.