James Barron | The New Mexican
When Stephen Serr walked to the middle of the wrestling mat to face his opponent, he did so with caution.
Looking up at Serr, a sophomore wrestler for Kearney (Neb.) High School, was Lucas Vialpando, a strapping junior from Aurora (Colo.) Eaglecrest High School.
What he saw was a muscular frame " from the waist up " waiting to engage him in the championship of the 98-pound division of the Greco-Roman competition of the Amateur Athletic Union Grand Nationals wrestling tournament.
"I was kinda nervous, "Serr said. "I was thinking of if he would beat me, how would I feel?"
What Serr saw was an opponent on his knees. It's how Vialpando wrestles because he has cerebral palsy.
Vialpando, competing in his fifth season in the sport, struggled against Serr and lost two of the three periods to finish second.
But even Serr admitted that Vialpando was a handful.
"He was really strong in the upper torso, "Serr said. "He had some muscle. He's pretty strong."
While Vialpando appreciated the compliment, he has a fierce competitive side that wants to excel. And it's the driving force behind his ultimate goal.
"I want to make it to (the) state (tournament), "Vialpando said. "Haven't got there yet, but I can see it within the next two years."
That dream was deferred as a sophomore, as he missed part of the 2010-11 season doing therapy that often conflicted with his wrestling schedule. It's grown on him over the last year and half, and Vialpando has made a stronger commitment to the sport.
"I started having fun with it, "Vialpando said. "It was something I knew I wanted to do. It grew kinda over time because the challenge was just something I loved."
It's a passion that doesn't just reside with him.
Older brother Horacio Vialpando, who wrestles at 160 pounds for Eaglecrest and also took a second-place medal in the Greco-Roman division, turned to the sport at his brother's beckoning when he was in the sixth grade. Horacio said Lucas was the first member of the family to compete in the sport, and encouraged him to follow.
"It was a part of him getting into it and him yelling at me to do it and my dad (Russ Vialpando), "Horacio remembered.
Part of that was because of Lucas' admiration for his brother. It is Horacio that Lucas credits for his desire to wrestle, and Russ sees the respect his younger son has for him.
"Lucas looks to his brother for inspiration and guidance, "said Russ, who is an assistant coach at Eaglecrest. "We try to make it (wrestling) a family thing for Lucas, because sometimes it's not about winning. It's about what you learn and how you take it toward your life."
What Lucas is learning on the mat is to adapt to his limitations. While he uses platform crutches to help with his balance, he doesn't when he competes. He wrestles from his knees to give him the best balance possible.
Because some wrestlers might find Vialpando's stance an advantage, referees offer opponents the option of starting from their knees as well.
When the whistle blows to start a match, however, Lucas doesn't feel at a disadvantage.
"No matter what happens, I can set my mind to something and I'll do it, "Lucas said. "When I step out on the mat, even if I lose I know I earned a tremendous amount of respect from everybody that watches the match."
His effort on the mat is opening other doors beyond the high school ranks.
Lucas wants to participate as a wrestler in the Paralympics. He and his dad are trying to find some events he can attend, but Lucas isn't waiting patiently for the opportunity.
"It just sounds amazing, "Lucas said. "I'm looking at doing it as soon as possible. It's what my dad wants, and it's what I want for myself."