FORT WAYNE – So here’s a photo for you, on a day given over to devotion and love. It’s a posed shot of the instruments of Nik Hoot’s passion, arranged on what looks to be the living room carpet. Every manifestation of a life lived full to the top is there.
The navy-and-powder-blue Woodlan High School wrestling singlet. The navy wrestler’s headgear. And, of course, the shoes, which in this case have their own significance.
Nik wanted a pair of wrestling shoes to wear to the mat on his legs for warmup, Nik’s mom, Apryl Hoot, wrote in a note attached to the photo. The poignancy of this pic is the epitome of what he has overcome Some thought it was crazy but I thought buying him a pair of wrestling shoes was the least I could do.
Because when most wrestlers get ready to compete, they take off their sweats.
Nik takes off his legs.
He’ll go back to the locker room or just sit next to the mat and remove his prosthetics, then crawl out to the circle.
Both of his own legs were amputated years ago – the right leg at the knee, the left at the heel – and now he wrestles from his knees, looking up at his opponent.
Funny how he towers over it all, anyway.
Maybe you begin the story this way: It’s a miracle there is a story.
Nik Hoot was born in Siberia in 1996, and from his first breath it was him against the odds. He was supposed to have been aborted (The medical report read Interrupted gestation 24 weeks,’ his mom says), but the abortion was botched. And yet somehow he survived, minus parts of both legs.
Teleport yourself some 5,000 miles to the other side of the world, to a small town in Indiana. The Hoots, Apryl and her husband, Marvin, were close to being empty nesters, but neither felt their work was done yet. So they began adopting children: Three from China, two from Russia, one from Hong Kong.
Nik is one of the two from Russia. And, again, he beat the odds.
At that time they would send videos, the agencies would, with kids on them, Apryl recalls. We kept coming back to Nik.
And when he came to them well, there again, the odds lost. He has, after all, grown up in a household with five other adopted children – the Hoots have nine kids in all, ranging in age from 9 to 39 – and three besides Nik are physically challenged. Ged, two years younger than Nik, is legally blind. Mitchell, two years younger than Ged, has 16 birth defects. Emmalee, 9, was born without femurs.
We started doing this because these kids needed a home, Marvin Hoot says. We wanted to do what we thought was important.
For the wrestling part of it, they can thank Ged. He began doing some club wrestling at Bishop Luers when he was in sixth grade, and pretty soon he was whooping on his older brother in the living room. And, of course, his older brother couldn’t have that.
In order to stay up with his brother, he decided to get into the sport, Marvin says.
It was, Woodlan coach Tony Girod says, a struggle at first, but Nik and struggle are old companions, and so he scarcely blinked. Instead he hit the weight room, and gradually he and Girod figured out a workable strategy.
The next year, he went to regionals at 106 pounds. This year, a 113-pound sophomore, he went to regionals again and came within a point of qualifying for semistate. He finished the season with a 20-16 record.
It’s difficult and challenging because there’s no video out there to study, no Internet. There are no books, says Girod, who’ll take 195-pounder Brian Salmon to state this weekend. You can’t relate something you’ve always done that has worked in your career or you’ve seen somebody has done. You can’t just pick those things out for Nik, because, obviously, Nik’s Nik.
And Nik, being Nik, is profoundly OK with that. How could he not be, given the way his life, physical challenges and all, has been so profoundly blessed?
I know there’s some things I cannot do, he says. But I’ll still try. I’ll learn how to do it. Simple things, like running fast. I know the probability is I will never be able to run as fast as most people.
He can, however, wrestle. And if that, too, seems improbable to some, and one more piece of the blessing, he doesn’t necessarily see it that way.
It’s just who he is. Nik’s Nik – and there, perhaps, is the sweetest blessing of all.
I don’t see it as being difficult, he says of his knees-to-the-mat style. I look at it as being an advantage, because I wrestle people with both their legs all the time, so I know everything they can do. But when they look at me, it’s completely different.
I always just try to be as quick as I can, and I know what to stay out of. Because if I get in a particular situation, I know that they can get me down.
As if anything else could.