Nick Ackerman stunned the sports world by winning a national wrestling title as an amputee. Now, 26, he is devoting his life to helping others walk again.
REGISTER STAFF WRITER
Davenport, Ia. " As Nick Ackerman remembers it, the old man was angry and frustrated. Diabetes had forced one of the man's legs to be amputated, and Ackerman had built him a prosthetic replacement.
"You don't understand, "the man complained. "You don't have to wear one of these things every day. They hurt."
"I do know, "Ackerman replied evenly, "and it's going to be OK."
Eventually, the man noticed there were no feet in Ackerman's shoes. Ackerman didn't have one prosthetic leg. He had two.
The complaints stopped.
Nick Ackerman has been surprising people for quite some time. Five years ago, the Colfax native stunned the sports world by winning the NCAA Division III 174-pound wrestling title for Simpson College in Indianola. Both of his legs had been amputated just below the knees when he was 18 months old. Ackerman removed his prosthetic legs before wrestling.
Earlier this year, Ackerman's achievement was chosen by the NCAA as one of "25 Defining Moments "in the organization's 100-year history. The list also includes Jesse Owens' four world records in 1935, Doug Flutie's "Hail Mary "touchdown pass in 1984, and Cael Sanderson's undefeated wrestling career at Iowa State.
Ackerman, now 26, has set a new goal for himself.
He wants to become the world's best prosthetist.
Not 10th best. Not one of the best. The best.
"I don't think I'm even close to there yet, "he says. "But that's a goal of mine. I want to be the go-to guy for the difficult patients, for the patients that everyone else is having trouble with. That would be success for me."
Ackerman designs prosthetic arms and legs in the Davenport office of American Prosthetics & Orthotics Inc., where he has worked for 41/2 years. Creating and fitting new limbs requires expertise in physiology, engineering, construction and sculpting, as well as a willingness to be covered in clouds of plaster dust.
"Best decision I ever made, "he says. "I love it."
Ackerman almost chose a different career.
His own prosthetist, Gary Cheney of Clive, had long encouraged Ackerman to consider the profession, recognizing Ackerman's lifelong curiosity about the way prosthetic limbs are designed, as well as his potential to inspire other people.
But Ackerman resisted the Mr. Inspiration title. All his life, ever since a rare and deadly form of meningitis forced his legs to be amputated, Ackerman has refused to believe he was anything other than absolutely normal.
He wanted to be known as a champion wrestler, not the first champion wrestler with no legs. He never remembered having legs, so he never felt like he was missing anything.
Everybody has some obstacle to overcome, he says.
"Mine's just more visual."
Even now, if somebody figured out a way to replace his feet, he says he wouldn't do it.
"There's too many things about not having legs that I have found that I can do, and do well, that I would simply not be able to do anymore, "he says.
Winning the national title was crazy, he says. The steady stream of reporters - even the "Today "show wanted him - never asked Ackerman to explain his takedown move in the final 17 seconds to defeat the defending national champion.
All they wanted to talk about was what he didn't have.
How does it feel to be an inspiration, Nick?
Well, forget that, and forget prosthetics, too. That was Ackerman's attitude at the time. He loved hunting, fishing and trapping. He would become a park ranger.
He almost did, too, until Cheney offered a compromise: Why not work in the Davenport office for a few months, see if you like it?
He has been there since, except for the six months he spent in the prosthetics certificate program at Northwestern University's medical school.
"Prior to his getting into the field, I don't think he could really appreciate the fact that people do look at him as a role model, "Cheney says.
People like Sean Mizlo.
Mizlo, 36, is the junior varsity wrestling coach at United Township High School in East Moline, Ill. Last July, he was riding his motorcycle when a drunken driver crossed the center line and struck him. Mizlo's left leg had to be amputated above the knee.
Doctors invited Ackerman to visit.
"I was just amazed the day he walked into the room, "Mizlo says. "I was still under medication, and I didn't realize at the time that he was a double amputee. Once I researched Nick and what he had done in his life, I thought, 'I can do this. It's not going to be that bad.' "
Ackerman designed Mizlo's prosthetic leg. Mizlo coached again this winter, and he invited Ackerman to address all the United wrestlers this season. He talked to them about overcoming adversity.
"It really touched them, "Mizlo says.
Ackerman says he loves the challenge of designing and fitting prosthetic limbs, especially for difficult patients, the ones with skin grafts or not that much leg to work with. He says securing a perfect fit gets him as excited as winning a wrestling match once did.
"He doesn't talk down to people, "says Angie McRell, a certified orthotist who works in the office. "He makes them really understand what's going on."
Everybody's different. The young person who wants to run and hike has different needs than an older person who just wants to make it to the bathroom. But almost everyone reaches a point where they wonder: Can I really do this?
That's when they get a glimpse of the competitive drive that propelled Ackerman to a national wrestling title. He wasn't satisfied with placing sixth in the state wrestling meet as a high schooler. He wasn't content with earning an All-American designation at Simpson.
He wanted to win.
Don't let the missing limb define who you are, he tells his patients.
You will be amazed at all you can still do.
"But you've got to want it, "he says. "I want to help them, and I want to get them going, as much as they do, you know? At the same time, jeepers, I can't want it more than they do."
He can be tough. Several years ago, when a young, one-legged wrestler from Texas told Ackerman he was giving up the sport to "go drinking, "Ackerman called him a "mental midget "and a few other choice names. They haven't talked since.
Ackerman says not having legs gives him a psychological edge with patients. They can compare notes. They can ask if he ever felt the way they do.
"If you're down in the dumps, all you got to do is watch him, "says John Haynes, 55. A diabetic ulcer cost Haynes one of his legs, but Ackerman helped the Moline, Ill., man walk with a prosthetic one. "He's the one that gives me the inspiration."
There's that word again. But you know what? The older Ackerman gets, the more peace he has found with his being a role model.
"He just gets a lot of pleasure out of helping those people, "says Ackerman's mother, Cindy, who lives in Colfax.
For example, Nick enjoys advising a University of Dubuque wrestler whose leg was amputated after an accident. When a Missouri friend told Ackerman about a one-legged wrestler in that state, Ackerman immediately agreed to do what he could to help him.
There was a time when he resisted that role. No more. In one respect, he's simply telling them what he has tried to tell everyone else throughout his life - that it doesn't matter. You can live, and live well, without a leg. Or even two.
"I see that my experience helps people deal with their own stuff more, "he says. "It's a neat place to be sometimes."
As it turned out, Ackerman's older brother, Nathan, 29, is the one who became a conservation officer, now working in Wisconsin. Sometimes, especially during hunting season, Nick envies him.
But then he'll place a prosthetic leg on a patient and it will fit perfectly. He'll assist them to the parallel bars to witness their first steps.
Almost invariably, they will take a few awkward steps forward and then burst into tears.
It's not just their arm or leg he's helping to fix. It's their life.
"That's an amazing thing, "he says. "To have somebody think their life is over, and they're never going to do this, then look at their husband and wife and think, 'Wow, I'm walking.' And they want to hug you."
He lets them. Being an inspiration has its rewards.