Kyle Maynard was a bona fide contender for a Georgia state high school wrestling championship, despite a physical condition that put him at a distinct disadvantage. Maynard, 19, was born a congenital amputee -- his arms ending at his elbows; his legs at his knees.
"I've met people who wonder why I wrestle," he writes in a new book "No Excuses." "Am I trying to have people feel sorry for me? Or am I simply trying to make friends, to be the token member of the team? Some people can't see the truth -- that regardless of my physical difference, I am as fierce a competitor as anyone can be."
"He was for real," said Cliff Ramos, Maynard's coach at Collins Hill High School in Suwanee, Ga. "Nobody took him lightly. And if they did, they regretted it."
An Inspiration to Others
Athletes such as Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz and Ultimate Fighting champion Randy Couture say Maynard is an inspiration to them. Even though he isn't out of his teens, he is legendary at his former high school.
"If I have a practice going on," said Ramos, "and I think I've got some kids who aren't being as tough, maybe, as they should be, I'll stop practice and I'll remind them about a guy that wrestled here with no arms and no legs and never complained, even when he hurt his shoulder once."
From the beginning, Maynard's parents say they focused on making his life as normal as possible.
"All we knew is that he was a beautiful baby," said his mother, Anita. "He was glowing. He was gorgeous. ... So we focused on his face, that gorgeous face."
Congenital amputation occurs in about one of every 2,000 births, but rarely affects all four limbs, as it did with Maynard. From the beginning, he said, his father insisted that he learn to feed himself out of concern that he might grow too dependent on others, while his grandmother refused to let other people look away from him.
"She brought me to a lot of grocery stores and she'd set me down in the cart. She told me, 'You don't have to be afraid of people. Look them straight in the eye and let them know that you see yourself as normal, and that's the way that they should perceive you, too.' "
An Early Penchant for Sports
Maynard was an active, ambitious child who loved rough-and-tumble activities. In neighborhood street hockey games, he played goalie. Then, in sixth grade, Maynard decided he wanted to play football. His mother made the call to the coach.
"I just told him that my child was born without all of his arms and legs, and has a big desire to play football, and is there something that he can do for the team?" said Anita Maynard.
She thought the experience would help Maynard socialize. But he and his father believed he could play. So did the coach, Tom Schie, who told Maynard he was picked for the team because of his ability, and for no other reason.
Soon, Maynard's father encouraged his son to try another sport which would at least match him with kids his own weight -- wrestling. He started in sixth grade.
He lost his first 35 matches.
"I was extremely discouraged. I don't think that anybody could go through that period without doubting themselves in some way, if you're a true competitor," he said. "I wanted to win."
His opponents learned quickly how to take advantage of him. They kept a hand on his head to prevent him from reaching them.
As fans, Maynard's parents watched his matches with extraordinary intensity -- displaying a gamut of emotions: frustration if they thought his opponents were stalling; exhilaration if he made a good move; pride, regardless of the outcome.
Maynard and his father -- a former wrestler -- worked out an extensive weight-training program for him. To this day, because of the strength he built, he has never been pinned. Ramos helped his star wrestler invent his own unique moves, including one called the rope-a-dope.
Ramos became a mentor to Maynard, and Maynard paid him back by learning to win, with 35 victories on the varsity squad in his senior year. He lost 16 matches.
"If you lose, it's all on you," said Maynard. "Wrestling is a brutal sport in that way. But then, you know, the victories are so much sweeter. And, because of that, I learned so much about myself. If you can persevere through that, then anything is truly possible. I believe that deep down in my heart."
"There was times I'd look at him towards the end of his time here," said Ramos. "And I'd have to turn around so my team wouldn't see me with tears in my eyes."
A Life Beyond Wrestling
Maynard travels in a wheelchair. He rejects prosthetic devices -- in part, he says, because without them, as a child, he was able to play so freely with his sister Amber, the oldest of three sisters, and his best friend.
One of Maynard's crowning achievements came when he qualified in his senior year for the Georgia state high school wrestling championships. Competing against the best, he won three of his matches. He was wrestling with a broken nose when he met his final opponent.
His opponent took an early lead. Maynard wasn't able to make a comeback and his loss also ended his high school career -- a story he recounts dramatically in his book.
"It was amazing," said Maynard. "Writing about it was the most passionate experience I had in writing the entire book, because ... it was very, very emotional at the end, with my coach, my family, the fans, my teammates -- everybody that I've grown to love, with me right there at the end."
"People just stopped and applauded," remembered Ramos. "And it went on and on."
Maynard, who now drives back and forth between home and the University of Georgia where he's a student, has a list of ambitions. He'd like to coach. He'd like to work as a broadcast commentator. He's now entering ju jitsu tournaments and is booked professionally for speaking engagements. But he and his parents say their goal has simply been to lead a normal life.
He was asked if there is such a thing as a good definition for the word "normal."
"To me it means just to go about things day to day as if they don't matter, as if the obstacles I face aren't there," said Maynard. "Leading a normal life doesn't mean living a stagnant life. You're going to look ahead and you're going to set your impossible goals that other people would say you can't achieve. And you can go out and do it."