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WRESTLING HAPPY: Nashwauk-Keewatin’s Alex Milstead, a sophomore with Down syndrome, brings his bubbly personality and infectious smile to the mat

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Teammates encourage Alex Milstead, 16, of Nashwauk as he does a crab walk during wrestling practice at Nashwauk Keewatin High School Tuesday evening, Jan. 30. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)2 / 2

NASHWAUK, Minn. — Cruising along undefeated at the Hibbing Invitational in early January, Coon Rapids' Isaiah Thompson wasn't thinking about improving to 5-0 as he prepared to wrestle Alex Milstead at 160 pounds.

Thompson instead was hatching a plan to lose. He executed it flawlessly.

Minutes later, Milstead — a Nashwauk-Keewatin sophomore with Down syndrome — had himself a second-round pin and a raucous celebration. Uninhibited, and with the crowd howling its approval, Milstead danced. He flexed his muscles. He beamed his infectious smile.

Amid the hoopla, and when Milstead was done high-fiving anyone with a hand, Hibbing's cheerleaders presented him with the customary safety pin that signifies a takedown.

Thompson, a junior, said he wanted to brighten Milstead's day, make it a "tad bit easier."

The aftermath indicates a rousing success.

"He had the biggest grin on his face. I loved it," said Thompson, who went on to conclude the tournament 5-1. "After seeing his response, I'd do it again any day."

Following a two-hour, sweat-inducing practice Tuesday in Nashwauk-Keewatin's orange-splashed and snug auxiliary gym, tucked away on the school's top floor, Milstead described his victory over Thompson. He started by explaining that Thompson "was a tall guy," so Milstead grabbed hold of his leg for leverage and wrangled him to the mat, ending the match with a headlock.

Asked how he felt afterward, the 16-year-old Milstead tapped his chest. In other words, "it made his heart pump," said Kari Bowers, the paraprofessional who has worked with Milstead for four years.

'One of the guys'

Milstead — "Bubba" to most — started wrestling when he was 3 years old and went out for the Nashwauk-Keewatin/Greenway team in eighth grade. With the Titans, he's just another athlete, dedicated to his craft. He performs the drills and does the conditioning.

Near the end of practice Tuesday, a drained Milstead was struggling to crab-walk the length of the mat, first forward, then backward. A steady chorus of "C'mon, Bubba!" filled the room. Milstead grimaced and growled, his "tough face," second-year coach Chad Snider said. Eventually, he was joined by one teammate, then another. They crab-walked right alongside him to the finish.

The unspoken message was clear: no free passes, regardless of physical ability.

Occasionally, if Milstead is tired or frustrated with himself, he will take a seat. The Titans are quick to intervene. They are supportive, but they also aren't averse to tough love.

"They treat him like one of the guys," Snider said.

Matt Jeska, a junior captain, is among the first to offer a helping hand if Milstead needs a boost. His reasoning is as simple as it is moving.

"He's a good friend," Jeska said. "I know he doesn't have it the easiest, and any way that I can help him out, show him that I care for him — because he's inspired me a lot, too — I always try to jump on it."

Milstead reciprocates the encouragement. Because Kole Platt, another junior captain who is ranked fourth in the state in Class AA, also wrestles in the 160-pound division, Milstead doesn't always get to compete at the varsity level. Even when he's relegated to observer status, nobody is more revved up, more animated. He morphs into an assistant coach.

"He's at the mat (yelling) 'take him down, shoot him!' " Snider said, referring to a wrestling move of grabbing the opponent's legs. "Always has a positive attitude, win or lose, wrestling or not wrestling. He's just glad to be part of the team."

Milstead can dish it out, too. He might tease a teammate for having 13 girlfriends, or cunningly swap his own water bottle with a distracted coach's soda, a beverage that is off-limits during the season. And Milstead will goad his fellow Titans when necessary.

"If someone's overweight, he'll poke him in the tummy," Snider said.

Watching them work Tuesday, you wouldn't think the Titans are in danger of turning flabby. When they weren't in the circle polishing their takedowns and escapes, they ran around the perimeter, slow but steady. Intermittently, Snider had them bend their bodies into positions only teenagers can assume. Or yogis.

It's a small squad, with about a dozen participants. Nonetheless, the Titans were bumped up a class this winter because the combined enrollments of Nashwauk-Keewatin and Greenway put them one student over the cutoff for Class A.

The compact roster underscores the importance of every wrestler staying in shape. That includes diet discipline. Milstead, who has dropped 15 pounds since the season started, plays by the rules.

Asked Tuesday if he was going to have pizza for dinner, he patted his stomach and said, "nope." Then, wagging a finger and smirking, he added, "not yet."

Milstead was smiling — he does that a lot — but it faded when Bowers reminded him the next day's practice started at 6 a.m. He and his teammates would arrive back at school 12 hours later, in the dark, to run stairs. Milstead loves wrestling. He didn't love that idea.

"No way," he replied in disbelief, his eyes wide.

But Milstead would be there. He's a wrestler.

"He's dedicated to it," Platt said.

Mr. Popular, and Positivity

Bowers, the paraprofessional, marveled at Milstead's development. He's a confident young man, outgoing, intelligent and, increasingly, independent. Because the Titans practice in the morning on Wednesdays, Milstead is able to attend his part-time job at Children of Grace Childcare Education Center in Hibbing. He takes the bus there by himself to wash dishes, clean tables and assist youngsters.

When he's not wrestling, working or in school, Milstead does what most teenage boys do. He likes lifting weights, listening to music, talking about girls and watching former professional wrestler Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in action. And he looks forward to getting his hands dirty in shop class, where Milstead has become an expert at tightening lugnuts.

In the spring, he throws the shot and discus for Nashwauk-Keewatin's track and field team.

In all of those pursuits, Milstead makes like a politician, talking to everybody.

"Everyone's happy to see him," Platt said. "Everyone loves him."

That is especially true on the mat.

"He's the star of the show wherever we go," Jeska said. "He knows that he's different from lots of other kids, but everyone loves him on the team, and on other teams, too. We're all rooting for him."

Milstead has collected four pins this season. He "might not be as talented or as tall or as strong as some of the other wrestlers," but that doesn't deflate his attitude, Snider said. The bubbly Titan who used to take naps on the mat is now a determined, hard-working grappler who approaches each match expecting to win. He isn't intimidated by anyone, Snider said.

That outlook — like Milstead's smile — is contagious.

"I've actually had a parent from another team come up to me and say, 'I wish all of our wrestlers had the same attitude that Bubba has,' " Snider recalled. "He goes out to the mat excited and ready to go, no matter who he's facing."

And when he wins, Milstead dances.