CEDAR FALLS — Winning means different things to different people.
For most high school wrestlers in Iowa, the dream is to make it to Wells Fargo Arena and just maybe wrestle on Saturday night in front 15,000 fans in the state tournament finals.
For Cedar Falls senior Mason McCartan, the dream was just to wrestle again.
On Dec. 29, 2017, McCartan finished the first of two wrestling practices. Between practices, McCartan and his friends planned on going sledding.
Tragedy soon struck on what was supposed to be an afternoon of fun.
“I was behind an ATV getting pulled, and the next thing I know I wake up in Iowa City,” McCartan said.
In tow on a sled behind the ATV, McCartan was thrown into a tree. He suffered five broken ribs, a collapsed lung, fractures to the T1 and T2 vertebrae in his neck, several facial fractures, a skull fracture and brain trauma.
He spent the next 18 days at University of Iowa Children’s Hospital in Iowa City, two of those weeks in an induced coma.
“After the coma, there was a week where I’d be awake and then fall back asleep as they were weaning me off the drugs from the induced coma,” McCartan said. “I don’t remember much of that time.”
Cedar Falls assistant wrestling coach Peter Stewart said there was uncertainty about how much McCartan would recover.
“I remember, and this might have been the worst-case scenario, that would he walk again?,” Stewart recalled.
McCartan surprised a lot of people, and quickly.
Transferred to Covenant Medical Center in Waterloo on Jan. 19, he began using a walker. Roughly three weeks later he was back at school. He was able to attend the Tigers’ Class 3A district wrestling meet and made his way to Des Moines to watch six teammates wrestle at the state tournament.
“I had to relearn to walk, talk ... all that stuff,” McCartan said. “Everything is good now. My memory is good. Going back to school was a surprise to me, because I didn’t expect to go back to school at all. But the teachers were a great help, and I got caught up.”
Almost as soon as he was out of the hospital, McCartan began to think about getting back to wrestling. There is a mat in his family’s house where he and younger brother Connor, Cedar Falls’ 106-pound starter, practice. On his first day back, he began working on his stance.
On June 7, McCartan was cleared by his concussion doctor. His neck specialist recommended he give up sports, but the decision was up to the family. He continued to attend Greco-Roman/freestyle practices. He’d warm up with teammates but do little else, just watch practice.
“The cool thing about that is he came back, and he has been at everything,” said first-year head coach Chris Ortner, who heard about the accident while serving as an assistant at Wartburg College last season. “He made it to every lift, every workout. He hasn’t missed anything. I think he realizes, maybe he has a different perspective, that this is an opportunity, and opportunities can be taken away from you at any second.”
As the season approached, he had to convince his mother and father, Jen and Ron McCartan, to let him wrestle.
“Dad was for it. Mom took a little longer. It took a lot of convincing,” McCartan said.
Exactly 11 months to the day after his accident, McCartan beat Western Dubuque’s Evan Surface, 11-4, in a junior varsity match at 152.
“That was a nerve-racking day, the entire day thinking about getting back out there,” McCartan said.
McCartan is 4-0 as a junior varsity wrestler this season, and 0-1 as a varsity starter.
The records are irrelevant, however, to McCartan, who plans on attending Northern Iowa next year and majoring in marketing/sales.
“The thing was, thinking about wrestling is what helped me the whole time,” McCartan said. “I had multiple wrestling teammates that helped me. They came to my hospital room in #MasonStrong T-shirts, and I remember telling them, ‘You are wrestling for me, and I’m fighting to get better for you guys’.
“I just wanted to wrestle again. I wanted to be part of the team.”
Ortner summed it up: “Mason getting to wrestle — that is him winning.”