Detours are part of this game. Just as much as side lifts, just as much as close wins and excruciating losses, and just as much as coaches chirping at officials over questionable calls, an athlete’s journey to relative Greco-Roman stardom being interrupted by injury is commonplace. It’s an accepted occurrence. No, we’re not talking about a little soreness and various other physical prices which are bought and paid for on a daily basis. That all comes with the territory, of course. We mean injuries — those legitimate something-must-be-fixed-before-I’m-good-again scenarios wrestlers try to avoid, but often can’t — they, too, have a habit of tapping an athlete on the shoulder every now and then, and usually stick around just long enough to screech the tires on what appear to be promising trajectories.
If Lucas Sheridan (85 kg, Army/WCAP) was unaware of this previously, you can now count him among the initiated.
Following his scholastic career at Indiana University and two consecutive appearances at the Junior World Championships, Sheridan, 24, joined the Army’s World Class Athletes Program to continue on as a Senior Greco-Roman competitor. Rocky was the beginning phase. Sort of. Sheridan wasn’t necessarily lighting it up at the big domestic events, but he wasn’t just there to gobble up bracket space, either. A fourth-place finish at the 2015 US Nationals indicated strides were being made heading into the Olympic Trials four months later, although his performance in Iowa City wound up leaving a rather dissatisfying taste in Sheridan’s mouth. “I got smoked, to be honest with you,” he bristles when recalling that Saturday in April of 2016. “I went 0-2 and I had no chance to win either of those matches.”
While that’s not entirely true — Sheridan’s second loss at the Olympic Trials was a 5-0 decision at the hands of two-time World Team member Patrick Martinez (NYAC), who had tech’ed Sheridan out at in the National bronze medal bout four months prior — his point still stands. Sheridan, still an apprentice even now, presented a vastly different picture as recently as a year and change ago. His first 18 months on the Senior level offered plenty of evidence that he was working with obvious ability. Sheridan is not a small man at 85 kilograms and right away demonstrated the requisite push-and-pull strength to hang in there during grueling exchanges. And perhaps due to his Division I collegiate background, he was also quicker on his feet than most plodders who tend to occupy the upper weights.
But the technical finer points, the positioning, the general machinations of Senior competition, they all took some time for Sheridan to grow accustomed to. So he kept at it, and by the fall of 2016, there was a mini-breakthrough. At last November’s Bill Farrell Memorial in New York City, Sheridan earned his first international bronze medal with a victory over Choi Jun-Hyeong (KOR). He not only made the podium, but did so by vanquishing a foreign opponent. It was a rough affair, more like a brawl. He needed that, Sheridan did. He needed some sign pointing to him chugging along on the right track.
A second straight fourth-place at the US Nationals came next, and following that, three wins at the Armed Forces Championships. Momentum, if you believe in such a thing, seemed to be on Sheridan’s side entering the homestretch for the World Team Trials.
The 85 kilogram weight class in Las Vegas this past April was stacked beyond reasonable comprehension. A two-time Olympian (Ben Provisor Nittany Lion), a two-time World Team member (Martinez), an Olympic Trials champ (Joe Rau, Minnesota Storm), a multi-time National Team member and World Military Championships medalist (Jon Anderson, Army/WCAP), and the reigning National Champion (Kevin Radford, Sunkist) all contributed to 85 being seen as the toughest bracket of the entire two-day tournament. Sheridan, he was a sleeper coming in, but certainly not out of the argument. He had given Provisor a run for his money in the battle for third at the Nationals, and he had competed well against the others on occasion. But just as his training was ramping up for the gauntlet that awaited, a pothole appeared. Sheridan tore up his left arm, the tendons stretched like day-old spaghetti, causing massive amounts of inflammation and searing pain whenever he attempted to contract the muscles located in or around the now-damaged area. Somehow, someway, the WCAP training staff got him whole, or whole enough to compete in the biggest event of the year, if not his life thus far.
Busted arm and all, Sheridan advanced to the third place/National Team match in that shark tank of a weight class only to suffer through another cruel twist of fate. Late in the second period and down by two to Anderson, the two collided with Sheridan taking the brunt of the impact. It was sudden and violent. The action on the mat was quickly halted and the trainers immediately tended to the fallen athlete. Sheridan was woozy, his mouth was cut up, and basically, that was that. Up until that point though, it was more than a representative showing for a guy operating at what was on that day, significantly less than full capacity. Sheridan dropped a first-round decision to eventual champ Provisor earlier, but after that, he was on his game in his next three bouts, which included back-to-back pins over 2016 National runner-up Khymba Johnson (NYAC/OTS) and Radford.
To come so close to sealing a spot on the National Team and have it slip away following such a strong overall performance stung, but there were positives to be derived. In other words, this wasn’t the same wrestler who got blanked out of the arena in Iowa City. It’s kind of ironic, Sheridan seems to think. At the 2016 Olympic Trials, he was a newbie Senior who likely wasn’t all that ready for what the biggest domestic stage had to offer. But he had his health. A year later, there he was, contending for a place at the top of the depth chart, and one of his appendages didn’t really work. It speaks to both his progress, and his temerity.
“I went from 0-2 at the Trials the year before, which was a tough weight, to taking fourth in the toughest weight class we’ve seen in who knows how long, and with one arm,” Sheridan says. “I noticed my mental game had changed after that (the injury to his arm). I went out there a lot calmer. Every single match I went out there with a much different perspective of, Man, I got one arm, let’s throw the kitchen sink at ’em. It changed my perspective on the way I compete and I was really excited to take that into my next competition.”
Which brings us to the most recent detour.
A Bad Break
Because he finished first at the 2017 Armed Forces Championships, Sheridan had earned the right to represent the United States at the CISM World Military Wrestling Championships in September. The space between the World Team Trials and the Military Worlds provided him with ample time to heal his arm and then tack on a solid, productive training camp. Everything was going according to plan. Sheridan would wrestle at the CISM Worlds and when that wrapped, maybe take a breather right before the new Senior season got underway.
Unfortunately for Sheridan, the plan went off the rails.
During a training session approximately a month out from the CISM Worlds, Sheridan was trading paint in the WCAP wrestling room with Jacob Mitchell, one of the country’s premier up-and-coming heavyweight competitors. It’s part of life. The size difference between the two athletes, while noteworthy, does not disqualify either from serving as a training partner for the other. Not all workout partners are the same size and Sheridan, a powerfully-built bulldog of a specimen, isn’t that much lighter than Mitchell at his “walking around” weight, anyway. Accidents happen in the room. Blame is hard to come by. All involved are equally innocent and guilty. This is what they do, it’s what is required, and when Sheridan recites the story, it is easy to sense that he holds no grudges.
“We were just wrestling,” Sheridan explains. “It was a freak situation where he basically headbutted me, but it was nothing on purpose, obviously. As I’m lying there on the ground, Spenser (Mango) runs over to me. I’m just laying there squeezing Spenser’s leg in pain and the doctors are all over the top of me, and Spenser is just trying to get me to calm down. If you hear something pop in your chest area, it can be a little scary.”
When an injury occurs, whether in a match or during practice, a wrestler is usually most concerned with when he or she will be able to resume their lifestyle. Just tell me what it is and when I’ll be back — that is the common refrain in the immediate aftermath of some twisted knee or torqued shoulder. In Sheridan’s case, there were no timely or comforting answers. The initial X-ray failed to betray anything, momentarily offering a glint of hope that a quick turnaround was possible, even if Sheridan knew better.
“I got x-rayed about 30 minutes after it happened and it came back negative,” begins Sheridan. “Oh, it’s just a bone bruise, or an intercostal cartilage. I’m sitting there looking at Spenser Mango like, No, it’s definitely not. I’ve done that enough times in my career and this pain I’m in is something that I’ve never been a part of.”
Sheridan was sent for more x-rays a couple of weeks later. The way the doctors explained it, a fracture can take time to show up. So he goes into the hospital, he throws the protective smock on, assumes the position, gets scanned, dressed, and leaves. But as Sheridan is in the parking lot walking away, walking towards an afternoon he figures will be filled with more questions and worries and rambling thoughts centered around an athletic life interrupted, something strange develops. He was being pursued and luckily, it was for good reason.
“The x-ray technician was chasing me down outside,” remembers Sheridan. “She asked me, ‘Are you going back to see your doctor today?’ I said, No, they were just going to give me a call. So she says, ‘You might want to go back. It’s my unofficial opinion judging by the first sight of your x-ray, that it looks like you might have broken the bottom of your sternum completely off.'”
You would think that kind of news hit like a ton of bricks. But even with the words “you might have broken the bottom…”, Sheridan’s second x-ray also came back inconclusive. Thankfully, he had an ace in the hole. Dr. Jason Barber, who is also a Major in the US Army, strolled into the picture. Barber has seen a wrestling injury a time or two, but more than that, he is a highly-respected figure on the WCAP staff because he knows his trade and what’s more, he knows his athletes.
Sheridan consulted with Barber, who suggested they take another look. Upon examining the x-ray, Barber noticed a spot around the perceived damaged area. It was fuzzy. But within that odd smattering of ambiguity located near the sternum is where the truth resided, and it didn’t take Barber more than a second to discern what the problem was.”He just looked up at me and said, ‘Nope, you’re done, this is setting off my spider senses,'” recounts Sheridan matter-of-factly.
According to Barber, the foggy space in and around the area of the sternum usually indicates where a fracture is. Given the pain Sheridan was in (“I couldn’t even sit up in bed, I couldn’t go chin-to-chest,” he says) along with the vicinity where the “fogginess” appeared, the diagnosis was a broken sternum with a broken-off xiphoid process, a verifiable double whammy for a wrestler suffering from fist-balling discomfort every time oxygen cascaded through his lungs.
With the news, Sheridan had his answer and appropriate treatment could commence. The road back took a while to develop. Healing a smashed xiphoid process requires a different approach compared to the soft tissue injuries most commonly associated with wrestling. Rest is all that works. Lots of rest, so forget about any thoughts of “prehab.” And once there has been enough rest, the athlete eases his or her way into active movement, where frustration inevitably winds up rearing its ugly head.
“It was mentally fatiguing,” Sheridan admits. “I would wake up every morning thinking, This is it, I’m going to sit up out of bed and be ready to go. But that day never really happened, it was just a really slow progression.”
Hurry Up and Wait
The chipped-up sternum occurred in late-August. Sheridan’s body, calloused and conditioned thanks to endless hours spent on the mat and in the weight room, offered him the advantage of a somewhat speedier recovery phase than the everyday person could likely hope to expect, but he was in a hurry. Eight weeks had passed since the injury before he was able to return to the mat. It wasn’t an ideal time-frame. The new competitive season in the US was set to begin on November 1st in his adopted hometown of Colorado Springs with the Dave Schultz Memorial International. One of only a few domestic Senior events held each year on American soil, the Schultz brought with it extra significance this time around. USA Wrestling had okayed the implementation of United World Wrestling’s two-day format featuring same-day weigh ins in conjunction with the updated weight classes. Both procedural changes are not expected to roll out until early-2018, giving tournament participants even more incentive to compete.
Naturally, Sheridan had his eye on it. As he gradually started to round into form and express movement without twinging limitation, entering the tournament didn’t seem so far-fetched. It wasn’t just about the thrill of competition for Sheridan or the desire to continue to build his up his growing resume. Those would be reasons enough for anyone. Instead, the Army wrestler felt that live action would offer the rigorous physical test he needed to take following a couple of months on the shelf.
He pleaded his case. And lost.
“My original game plan was to always wrestle in the Schultz, that was the goal in my head,” Sheridan says. “I told our doctors and I told Coach (Bruce) Robinson, Hey, I want to wrestle Schultz, in my head, this is what I need to do to get my body back to where it wants to be. I need to have a goal in mind. I’m not an average person who wants to sit around and wait, you’ve got to give me something to chase.
“And Coach Robinson looked at me and said, ‘Absolutely not, you are not wrestling at Schultz.’ This was about a month before.”
To Robinson and the other WCAP coaches, keeping Sheridan on the leash was not so much about the injury as it was the big picture. Sheridan’s fractured sternum? That had healed by then. At this stage, the quandary was rather simple: the man might have been healthy, but the Greco-Roman wrestler was not. “It’s just the fact we knew I was not physically ready,” he’s now willing to concede. “I wasn’t in shape, I had no muscular endurance, and to be honest, I needed to loosen that chest back up a lot. For the first two months, I did absolutely nothing except sit around, watch practice or watch film, and help the team in as many military aspects as I could until I was actually wrestling again.”
The crisp winds of autumn are now whispering across the landscape. “Greco Town USA”, or Colorado Springs to everybody else, is bustling with activity. At the US Olympic Training Center, wrestlers are brushing up on technique and mixing in live drills as some of them gear up for impending trips across the Atlantic over the next month. Just a few minutes away — literally — is the headquarters for the Army’s World Class Athletes Program. It’s a similar scene. Athletes clad in singlets or warm-ups are pairing off to begin their daily allotment of lifts, throws, and other bone-rattling moves and motions designed to test the limits of aerodynamic influence. Just how high and hard can men throw each other in the name of skill-building? They all want to find out, Sheridan included.
And he will. Well, maybe not in one fell swoop today or tomorrow, but soon enough. Someday shall suffice. That’s because after enduring torn tendons in his left arm in the spring, and after cracking his sternum practically in half towards the end of the summer, Sheridan is once again whole and ready to resume his climb to the top of the Greco-Roman ladder as quickly as he can possibly manage. There is a refreshed energy abound, excitement to harness, and the chippiness in his voice is a dead giveaway that the sun has pushed aside the clouds. But right in concert with the opportunity to compete is education.
You see, Sheridan, despite those two Junior World Team appearances and a fourth-place finish at the 2017 World Team Trials, feels he still has plenty of learning to get done. He’s probably correct, the Senior level demands a seasoned, nuanced skill-set that has to be experienced before it is rightfully acquired. That’s just fine with Sheridan, learning on the job is a part of his vocation that he appreciates, even more so now that he has caught a glimpse of what life is like sitting on the sidelines.
One advantage he’ll have going forward is an expansive margin for error pertaining to his weight. Throughout his career going back to the Juniors, Sheridan has competed at either 84 or 85 kilograms. He’s kissing the weight class goodbye and moving up, though the fast approaching same-day weigh in format is not the primary reason why. With less energy being devoted to staying on weight, Sheridan will be able to concentrate on that aforementioned Greco education.
“What most people don’t understand is that I’m still very green when it comes to Greco,” says Sheridan. “I don’t know that much. I lost a lot of it wrestling collegiately. The hard part about the weight class thing is that leading up to the competition, I’ve had to spend about a month on my weight. I was a rather big 85 kilo, I’d like to think. When I’m the strongest, fastest, and best shape that I can be in, I am about 92, 93 kilos. I talked to Spenser Mango and Bruce Robinson when the new weights were announced and I said, ‘Hey man, screw it. Screw this weight-cutting stuff. Let’s work on technique, let’s get back to me having fun, and let’s get back to me learning what I need to.'”
Maybe it would be just a tad melodramatic to make it sound as if Sheridan has been remade, reborn, or reinvented. He wasn’t off the mat too long, after all. But time is relative, isn’t it? Sheridan’s story is a lot like a driver merging onto a busy highway. He had just clicked his blinker to join the speeders in the fast lane when he was forced to pull over. The fine has been paid and he wants to rev the engine again. It all adds up to why Sheridan is embracing each grueling practice session with a renewed sense of gratitude.
“Major (Jon) Anderson and I were going 110% today,” he proudly informs. “I mean literally, we were going 110%, I am 110% healthy, ready to go, and just itching to get back into competition. There is nothing holding me back anymore.”