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Oak Park-River Forest High School Wrestling Coach Mike Powell talks to his team at the end of practice. | Ryan Pagelow~Sun-Times Media

BLOOMINGTON -- After finishing the IHSA season Saturday, Oak Park-River Forest coach Mike Powell plans on going on a vacation with his wife and then it’s back to business March 11.

The Huskies lost in the Class 3A state dual-team quarterfinals to Sandburg, 33-23, but the next phase of the wrestling season begins next month as Powell trains several of his wrestlers for the club season.

The veteran coach plans on sending many of his wrestlers to different meets, including club state for Freestyle and Greco-Roman, the Folkstyle Nationals in Iowa and the season-ending USA Junior and Cadet Nationals in June in Fargo, N.D.

“We are going to kill in the offseason like we always do,” Powell said shortly after ending the IHSA season at U.S. Cellular Coliseum.

One of Powell’s projects in the offseason is to guide top returning wrestler Davonte Mahomes, a junior, into a top three spot at Fargo. Mahomes (46-1) was undefeated until losing to Sandburg’s C.J. Brucki in the state individual meet, but Mahomes beat Brucki 9-3 at the state dual-team meet.

“Going into the spring and summer (is important) now that he didn’t win (state),” Powell said of Mahomes. “He’s going to do some damage this summer.”

Last season, Mahomes won the Greco-Roman State championship at 160 pounds in the Junior division while competing for the Flama Blanca club (The White Flame), He finished third in the Cadet Nationals.

Out of the 13 OPRF wrestlers to appear in the state quarterfinal, only three were seniors. Both OPRF and Sandburg double forfeited the match-ending 113 bout when freshman Gabe Townsell was expected to wrestle.

Mahomes was one of four juniors to appear, including Johnny Gahagan, Andre Lee and Malik Brumant. The sophomore starters were Matthew Rundell, Larry Early and Adam Lemke-Bell. The freshmen were Isaiah White, Kamal Bey and Roberto Campos. Another freshman, Allen Stallings, did not wrestle when Powell made a coach’s decision to give senior Cory Cepak a start at 170.

According to Mahomes, the future is very bright for OPRF next season.

“As long as we buy into what coach Powell tells us and what the other coaches on the staff tell us,” Mahomes said. “We have to listen to coach Powell and what the other coaches say. They have never steered us in the wrong direction.”

All three of OPRF’s captains from the state dual-team, Joe Ariola, Jake O’Mara and Zach Pickering, will graduate. Mahomes knows many of his teammates will look to him next season to be one of the team leaders.

“This year I was kind of a co-captain, but now I know I may really be a captain. I know I’m going to have to shape up,” Mahomes said.

Media coverage of Powell's story spreads word about polymyositis

Mike Powell’s odyssey of media appearances last spring started with a faculty meeting in 2011.

The veteran wrestling coach at Oak Park-River Forest was invited to speak on behalf of teachers suffering from a disability. The irony of Powell’s struggle with polymyositis is that he looks relatively healthy despite battling occasional weight loss. But Powell endures a daily struggle with a rare disease that diminishes his muscle strength and causes constant fatigue.

Powell spoke about his plight at the meeting. The special education teacher was forced to give up his daily duties in the classroom in the spring of 2011 after being diagnosed in April 2009, just a few months after OPRF won its first Class 3A state championship with a 33-30 victory over Minooka.
Now Powell believes he may have suffered symptoms from polymyositis as early as 2006.

“I lost 20 pounds in a season,” Powell said. “I came out and told my wrestling family right away and the public. I couldn’t walk up stairs and I had to walk with a cane.”

But Powell’s struggle wasn’t widely known until after that faculty meeting, when a fellow teacher told a Chicago Tribune reporter about Powell’s condition. Months later, his story became national news when Sports Illustrated reporter Chris Ballard spent nearly a week with Powell for a piece titled, “Man in Full.”

Powell’s plight went public — big time. He made one appearance after another to attract more attention to polymyositis, a disease without a known cause and since it is so rare, no specific medication has been developed by pharmaceutical companies since the market for an apparent drug is so small. Powell’s travels took him to a Northwest side television studio for public TV to the pitcher’s mound at U.S. Cellular Field.

Powell’s media blitz brought his story to a national audience as Ballard’s story became the basis for a report on a Sports Illustrated show on the NBC Sports Network. Another story appeared on ESPN’s E:60 called “In Relentless Pursuit “ which was taken from one of Powell’s favorite mottos. ESPN’s cameras interviewed Powell’s father, Bud, and wife, Elizabeth Hess, and followed the OPRF team through the 2012 postseason. The Huskies finished as the Class 3A state runner-up to Sandburg after a pin decided the championship.

Through a partner, Chris McGrath, Powell created a business venture at relentlesspursuitwrestling.com offering to host wrestling camps and purchase training videos.

Local media also latched on to Powell’s story. He was featured in a WGN-TV news report and was brought in as a guest on WTTW-TV’s “Chicago Tonight” to discuss polymyositis.

One of the highlights of Powell’s summer was the opportunity to throw out the first pitch at the White Sox game against the Houston Astros June 8.

“I’m very grateful for the positive press,” Powell said. “But the press has portrayed me in a light that is not realistic. I’m a deeply flawed man.”

The Sports Illustrated report touched on Powell’s troubled past as a punk, a bully, an immature kid while wrestling at Indiana.

“I was a wild man,” Powell admits. “I would fight. That was a thing you’d get that out of me after a couple of beers, But I would break up a lot more fights than I was ever in.”

Powell felt as though he was portrayed as a hero after watching the reports on him, either on ESPN, WGN-TV or the Sports Illustrated program.

ESPN’s E:60 used ominous music, moving cameras and recreations to amp up the drama surrounding Powell’s life.

“It has caused me to think about being the person they think I can be. I think about making a nice start,” Powell said. “My wife has made me a better person. If I made a few bad decisions, I could be spending a significant time in jail.”

Last summer, when one of Powell’s former wrestlers, Ellis Coleman, competed in his first Olympic Games in London, Powell was there with Coleman’s mother, Yolanda Barral, who was able to make the trip due to a fund-raising campaign organized by OPRF’s wrestling program. The cameras for Sports Illustrated’s television show captured Powell and Barral cheering for Coleman in London.

As a result, Powell has heard from people across the country with similar struggles with polymyositis.

“It’s been great. I’m very way behind for getting in touch with people,” Powell said. “Part of this is not having energy. My daily tasks take up a lot of time. I feel terrible about not getting back to people sooner.”

After his coaching career, Powell told Scott Casber of intermatwrestle.com that he would like to devote more time to awareness of polymyositis.

Although Powell, at day-long invitationals, will rest between breaks by laying down on the mat, he gains strength through coaching.

“I really think that without the sport of wrestling, I would be dead right now or certainly incapacitated,” Powell told Casber in a 45-minute interview Feb. 5, 2012.

Powell tries to rely on his assistant coaches more than ever. One of them is Paul Collins, the son of his predecessor, Naill Collins, who relinquished the team to Powell starting with the 2003-04 season. The Huskies went 9-13 in dual meets in Powell’s first season. In 2006, OPRF made its first state quarterfinal appearance under Powell despite losing 39-13 to Grant.

In the interview with Casber, Powell revealed some of his coaching philosophy on the same day he left for the state dual-team tournament in Bloomington. It shows Powell’s passion after years of involvement in the sport as a 1994 171-pound state champion for OPRF under former coach Norm Parker, an All-American for the Hoosiers in 1996 and then as an assistant coach at his high school alma mater.

Powell said: “Before you can be a great coach, you have to develop love and trust. If you don’t have love and trust, you can’t affect change with your players.”

Powell wants to help kids. Wrestlers in his program draw from a wider variety of socio-economic classes compared to one of the school’s other elite teams, the Class 4A state championship baseball team. Many of his wrestlers come from single-parent families and don’t have the advantages of athletes in other sports.

“He turns boys into men,” OPRF athletic director John Stelzer said. “His vehicle to do that is wrestling.”

When he was teaching special education, Powell reached out to boys in his department that had learning disabilities or suffered from behavioral problems.

“He wants to move them into wrestling and give them a purpose to school,” Stelzer said. “He wants to give them a reason to be here and hopefully be successful in their own lives.”

Stelzer’s first year as A.D. was Powell’s first year as head coach. Before reaching their current positions, Stelzer and Powell were assistants — Stelzer in athletics, Powell in wrestling — for three to four years before gaining their current positions.

Stelzer said OPRF has an academic assistance program for all of its athletes. Powell makes sure his wrestlers use the tutoring service. According to Powell, his program is among the school’s leading athletic programs in GPA. This season, Powell has 41 wrestlers on the varsity and JV team. There are nine seniors, 13 juniors, 18 sophomores and five freshmen.

Senior Jake O’Mara has given a lot of thought the last few weeks as his two-year varsity career nears its end. Powell has made an impact.

“It’s such a privilege. People always talk about how this is the best time of your life,” O’Mara said. “Powell talks about it. He puts things in perspective. I’m lucky to have the opportunity to participate for such a great team.”

Powell counters polymyositis with positive attitude, rest, gluten-free diet

There is no definitive cause or treatment for polymyositis, but Mike Powell knows it is a burden he must deal with for the rest of his life.

Powell, 36, no longer needs a cane to help him walk around the hallways of Oak Park-River Forest or even for his daily climb up the staircases to the wrestling room that is his second home away from his River Forest residence.

But Powell gets plenty of sleep each day and has changed his diet in an effort to battle a rare muscular disease, “which is characterized by chronic muscle inflammation accompanied by muscle weakness,” according to the website for the National Institutes of Health.

NIH lists symptoms such as “difficulty climbing stairs, rising from a seated position, lifting objects, or reaching overhead.” Powell told ESPN’s E:60 that he nearly fell down when one of his wrestlers leapt into his arms after a victory in the 2009 state championship match. It was a rare moment of weakness for the former youth football player and college wrestling All-American. The wrestler was much smaller than Powell, who finished seventh in the NCAA meet at 176 pounds at Indiana.

Treatment for polymyositis victims vary by the individual. Physical therapy, exercise and medication through a coritcosteroid drug are common. The prognosis is just as varied. The NIH states “individuals with severe and progressive muscle weakness will develop respiratory failure or pneumonia. Difficulty swallowing may cause weight loss and malnutrition.”

The origins of polymyositis are associated with both autoimmune diseases and infectious diseases.

Like thousands of other people. Powell claims he has received help from a trendy new diet.

“I’m doing great. I’m gluten free,” Powell said. “That has helped me that I have found a diet. Originally I was on a diet that didn’t work. I also have no fat and no sugar. Gluten free has changed my life.”

In December, Powell reported that he could do nine pull ups. “I’m getting my muscle back,” he said.

Dr. John A. Robinson, a Professor of Medicine and Microbiology at Loyola University’s Stritch Medical Center and the Interim Director of Rheumatology, said there is no known connection to polymyositis and a gluten-free diet.

“Gluten-free is for people with celiac disease,” Robinson said. “There is no known relationship between polymyositis or other auto-immune diseases.”
Robinson said lymphocytes attack their own muscle fibers, which causes polymyositis.

“Nobody knows what precipitates it or sets it off,” Robinson said.

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