When Marist junior Jacob Liberatore was a freshman, doctors at the prestigious Mayo Clinic in Minnesota told him he would never be able to wrestle again.
Liberatore did not accept that.
“I love the sport,” Liberatore said. “I’ve been doing it since I was a little 5-year-old. I just love it and I want to be up there competing at the highest level, just like the guys I was watching when I was younger.
“I definitely wasn’t ready to give it up. I had to do whatever I could to keep going.”
Liberatore has dealt with several health issues. Beginning shortly before his freshman year, he was hospitalized for a year with serious stomach problems and an autoimmune disease that resulted in him being sent to the Mayo Clinic.
He said he has had COVID-19 multiple times over the last two years.
Liberatore, who has come back from all of that, is back on the mat.
Oh, and he’s undefeated.
Liberatore improved to 9-0 Saturday after winning the 170-pound championship of the Illini Classic at Lincoln-Way Central.
“He’s mentally tough,” Marist coach Brendan Heffernan said of Liberatore. “There’s a lot that goes into his preparation. This is one of those sports where if you gut it out, good things will come.”
Liberatore has had to work extra hard to regain his strength to compete. He was all set to go earlier this season, then had to deal with some more setbacks.
“I lost weight and wasn’t as muscular as I used to be,” he said. “I was working out with my trainer a lot to build it back up. I was ready, but then this school year, I got COVID. I had influenza and more stomach issues. I lost weight again and then got it back up.
“There have been a lot of ups and downs.”
Liberatore’s parents, Tony and Wendy, have watched their son fight to continue his wrestling career.
“He’s always worked very hard since he was little,” Wendy said. “He’s never backed down. No matter what, he’s always pushed through it. He’s always been a tough kid. We’re proud of him.”
Liberatore has risen to No. 6 at 170 in the Class 3A rankings by the Illinois Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association.
He has gotten support from his teammates on the RedHawks, who are ranked No. 5. That includes his brother, Luke.
“My practice partners are really pushing me,” Jacob said. “I’ve bounced right back. A couple times there’s been a little struggle, but my teammates have helped me.”
Welcome back: Here’s another comeback story courtesy of Sandburg senior Kevin Zimmer.
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Zimmer returned last week after missing all of last season and the first seven weeks of this season due to a torn ACL in his right leg, which he suffered while playing quarterback last spring for the Eagles in football.
Zimmer, a Wyoming recruit who was a state runner-up as a sophomore, won the Illini Classic with three pins in his four matches.
“I’ve been ready to get back to sports,” Zimmer said. “I love it. I feel great coming back to compete. It was a long and tough rehab, but I stayed positive, looking at the main goal of having that bracket board at the end of the season as a state champ.”
Still perfect: Shepard senior Damari Reed, who won the 3A title at 152 in June at the IWCOA state meet to become the Astros’ first wrestling state champion since 1984, has been dominant this season.
He got a test — and passed it — in the championship match at the Illini Classic. Top-ranked Reed (22-0) won a 6-5 decision over Lincoln-Way East’s Jack Marion, who was ranked No. 5.
“It was a close match, but I had the match under control the whole time,” Reed said. “I was glad I got a tough match this season.”
Steve Millar is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.