Leaning against his walker in the middle of the Bellingham High School cafeteria after a grueling evening wrestling practice, Dewald Olivier begins scrolling through his cell phone. He's looking for a specific video.
He finds the right one, presses play, adjusts the screen and once it starts playing, a large grin slowly grows on his face as his eyes light up.
It's a video of him wrestling during a weekend tournament at Sehome. In roughly 50 seconds, Olivier swipes at his opponent's leg to bring him to the ground, methodically works to gain a control position, then rolls his opponent to his back.
Staring at the video, Olivier doesn't make a sound. He's too busy watching one of his proudest wrestling moments unfold.
The referee slaps his hand on the mat, signaling a pin, and the video ends.
"Before the match, I was like, 'What have I worked all year for? Have I really improved?" Olivier says in his soft voice. "I thought I was just going to go downhill from middle school. (The win) motivated me even more to keep going."
Olivier has motivated much more than himself this year. Ask his teammates and opponents.
Though the pin marks his lone varsity win not by forfeit, Olivier's attitude, determination and perseverance are far more astounding than a single victory.
Olivier was born 15 years ago as one of three triplets in Johannesburg, South Africa. His mother gave birth to his two brothers and him six months into her pregnancy. Olivier weighed exactly two pounds at birth. His younger brother died after three days due to massive brain damage and other complications.
The premature birth also left Olivier and his brother, Stefan, with brain damage, resulting in Dewald's cerebral palsy - a group of disorders that can involve brain and nervous system functions, such as movement, learning, hearing, seeing and thinking. Dewald stayed in the hospital's intensive care unit for 57 days and immediately began therapy once he left.
"We got him a day mother, and she was a really dynamic lady that helped him out with therapy," Hennie Olivier, Dewald's father, said. "When (Dewald) was 3 years old, we decided we had an opportunity to come to the States. So with two 3 year olds, a 5 year old and me and my wife, we came here. (Dewald) didn't know any English. None of my children knew any English."
Shortly after birth, Dewald was diagnosed with a form of diplegic cerebral palsy - a type limiting movement in his legs.
"What the neuro specialist told us is that the part of the brain that got damaged affects the left leg, right leg, left arm, then right arm," Hennie said. "Basically, he wants to (make leg movements), but the signal is not there."
Dewald and Hennie couldn't put a percent on how much usage Dewald has in his legs, but he has enough to walk short distances and he hopes to one day drive. He's working on getting his driver's permit now, but Dewald relies on his walker to get him around most places.
Hennie was told his son would never be able to write, but like many times Dewald has been doubted, he's persevered and can now write quite fluently.
"He faces challenges with the academics, because he cannot write stuff down as quickly," Hennie said. "The school district has helped out a lot with accommodating him. They do a lot."
As long as Hennie can remember, Dewald has always tackled obstacles in his life head-on. He's never been one to take the easy way out or use his disability as an excuse. It's the main reason Dewald prefers to take the stairs at Bellingham High School instead of the elevator.
"I try to take the steps," Dewald said. "If I take the elevator, I don't feel anything. If I take the stairs, I feel like I didn't take the easy way out, and I feel good about myself."
Despite Dewald's gung-ho attitude, Hennie acknowledged his son is constantly overcoming new and revolving obstacles in his life.
"Every day is a struggle," Hennie said. "I don't know how you cope, because for me it is easy to jump up and do stuff, but you have to figure stuff out. Your whole life you're figuring stuff out. ... In the end our goal in raising him, and any of our children, is to be totally self sufficient. You have to just focus on your goals and just go for it."
DISCOVERING HIS SPORT
Last year Dewald, who since early childhood has had a fascination with soccer, was sitting at the lunch table at Kulshan Middle School when he and one of his friends staring joking around.
"One of my friends as a joke said, 'Hey, do you want to do wrestling,?" Dewald recalled. "I was like, 'Sure.' Trying to be funny, I asked for a (sign-up) slip. Then, I don't know. Something got me, and I started to take it seriously."
Dewald, whose weight fluctuates between 95 and 98 pounds, doesn't have the same wrestling abilities as others. Unlike the average wrestler who begins a match on two feet in the neutral position, Dewald is constrained to wrestling on all fours. But his tremendous upper-body strength allows him to be a force when he gets an opponent to the ground.
In many ways, wrestling is the perfect sport for Dewald. The principles both he and wrestling embody are an ideal match.
"I like the feeling of working hard and setting a goal and being really determined," said Dewald, when asked why he loves wrestling.
He embraces the physicality the sport demands, too.
"I just love beating the crap out of people," he said. "I just love one-on-one fighting in the (wrestling) room."
Before the start of this season, Dewald approached one of his best friends on the Red Raiders' wrestling team, senior heavyweight Dylan Hanson, with a question.
Hanson spent time coaching Dewald while he wrestled at Kulshan.
"He came to me this year and kind of surprised me, asking if he should wrestle this year or not," Hanson said. "I wasn't expecting it, because high school wrestling is a big step up from middle school. I was like, 'Go for it. It's going to be a lot harder than middle school wrestling, but stick with it,' you know. 'They're not going to make you quit. You can do it.'"
It didn't take long for Dewald to make an impression on the team.
"I think it's really easy to have him on the team, because he tries as hard as he can all the time," Bellingham coach Tom Hinz said. "He has fun. The first day he came in and there was no 'I'm a freshman' or any freshman fears or anything like that. He came in popping jokes and having a great time."
From the first week of practice, everyone embraced Dewald as a fellow brother. The camaraderie is one of Dewald's favorite parts of being a Red Raider wrestler.
"It feels like a big family," Dewald said. "I love everyone on the team. They have really supported me."
The wrestling room is a unique place. It's an area where pain, hard work, bonding and occasional laughter blend to form disciplined athletes capable of pushing themselves to the brink of exhaustion without giving up.
Bellingham High's is no different.
Down a winding maze of corridors on the backside of the high school gym rests Bellingham's roughly 3,600 square-foot sweat box.
The team gathers Thursday evening, Jan. 17, for a practice in preparation for Bellingham's upcoming Lynden Tournament.
Fourteen wrestlers are in attendance this night, including Dewald, who, based on Hinz's account, is always at practice and is never late. In fact, Dewald said he's one of the only freshmen left who comes to every practice and meet.
Like everyone else, Dewald, who is outfitted in a teal blue T-shirt, knee-length black shorts and black wrestling shoes, is working on ground technique with a partner.
Austin Bavaro, Dewald's partner for the first half of practice, takes his time to give Dewald tips while the two practice together.
"He is a good sport, and he is like an inspiration to the team," Bavaro said. "He makes us want to go harder and everything. Just watching what he is going through makes us want to push even that much harder."
Suddenly, Bellingham assistant coach Juan Badillo blew his whistle and yelled, "Up downs!"
Everyone stands up, forms a circle and begins chopping their feet in unison. One wrestler stands in the middle of the circle and begins leading the team in the exercise. Without hesitation, Dewald quickly crawls to the side wall and starts doing crunches.
After another short period of one-on-one wrestling, Badillo stops the team again. This time, he wants them to run wall-to-wall sprints. Dewald crawls to the side and lines up next to the team. When the whistle blows and wrestlers begin sprinting, Dewald crawls as fast as he can to the far wall and back until the conditioning is complete.
"The first day of wrestling practice when we had to do sprints and up downs, Hinz was like, 'You can do whatever, stretch or take a break,'" Dewald explained. "But I didn't feel right. I didn't think I deserved it, because everyone else is pushing themselves. No matter what, they don't get breaks. So I thought to myself, 'Why should I?'"
The gesture immediately gained the respect of his new teammates.
"Of course we can do certain things he is unable to do, but he is going through the same stuff," Hanson said. "We may be doing sprints, but he is crawling. Instead of being hard on his legs, it's hard on his arms. He is going through the same stuff we are. He just goes through it differently, but it's the same challenges."
Further into practice, the team finishes ground work and moves on to technique from a stand up position.
Fastened to one of the side walls is a full-sized dummy named Andy, though Dewald has appropriately named him Wally.
While the rest of the team partners up and works their take downs and other stand-up moves, Dewald works rigorously on his technique with Wally. He quickly pulls Wally's arm then lunges at his legs. He repeats this process over and over up to 15 minutes at a time, taking minor breaks in between.
"Stuff that I can't help my partner out with, I would rather work on my technique," Dewald said. "And I think I've gotten better with my technique using Wally."
"No matter what, I know he is always going to be there for me," joked Dewald as he cracked a smile. "I think I have the right to name him. One of my nicknames is Wally."
Undoubtedly, the ramifications of Dewald's cerebral palsy makes him more visible in many environments. Inside the wrestling room, though, he blends in seamlessly.
"Dewald doesn't think he's better or worse than anybody else on the team," Hinz said. "I think that's just the approach he takes. Everybody kind of feels like they got a hard life in there, and he's just another one of the guys. He's made himself a family member of the team right away."
AN INVALUABLE ASSET
Bellingham owns a 3-2 record overall and a 3-1 mark in league duals. Wrestlers Riley Takemura, Patrick Anderson and Hanson have helped Bellingham earn one of the top records in the Northwest Conference.
Without Dewald filling the 106-pound slot every dual meet, though, Bellingham could very well be 1-3 in league.
"Every match we've wrestled so far, Dewald has gotten us six points," Hinz said. "This last match, we won by six points. That just shows how important it is to have a guy there that is willing to come every day and step on the scale and be ready to go. It's really important for us."
Not too many freshmen make an impact on varsity like Dewald has. The fact that he's been such an integral part of Bellingham's success in dual meets has even taken Dewald by surprise.
"I feel like, it kind of sounds weird, but an asset - like the team needs me, kind of," he said. "I would probably feel really bad if I lose every single one. I just keep going forward knowing my team is counting on me to win."
In fact, Dewald may have been more surprised he won a match than some of his teammates have been.
"He always has the opportunity to win," Bavaro said. "He's won one match already. I thought it was amazing. At the beginning of the year, he didn't even think he'd win one. Through the whole season, I've been telling him, the whole team has been telling him, you're going to get one, you're going to get one. And he finally got one."
Dewald's success on the mat is only one part of his contribution to the team. His comic relief, especially on the fun-loving Red Raiders, seems almost as important.
While Dewald may appear, at first, to have a shy exterior, he is full of quick, witty jokes.
When Hinz was asked what has surprised him the most about Dewald, before the coach can say "how funny he is," Dewald answers: "That I can walk two feet."
Hinz recalls an early-season practice when the team was playing a game. All of sudden he said Badillo heard someone screaming and was wondering who it was. Hinz said he looked over and saw Dewald "crying like a little girl" because someone was tickling him.
"In many ways, he has every reason to quit," Hinz said. "In many ways, it seems like society kind of gives you that, 'Why would I want to put myself through all this hard work and not get anything out of it? Sure, I won one match, but I've wrestled 17 or 18.' I mean, who wrestles that much for one match? Some people would say, 'Play on a cell phone or do something else,' but he is willing to stick it out."
Dewald praised Anderson, Takemura and Hanson for motivating him every day. He credits his best friend, Makayla Witteveen, who he said has been a tremendous help to him off the mat this year.
"They were with me since eighth grade," said Dewald of Anderson, Takemura and Hanson. "They know what I go through. They understand me and help me out. I love their determination and their willingness to help me out."
Dewald's relationship with the team goes further than the wrestling room or wrestling tournaments and duals. He has become friends with his teammates, often spending nights at wrestler's houses or having teammates over to his place.
"I honestly feel like if you have the mindset to do something, you can do whatever you want," Dewald said. "I honestly don't think I'm any more special than any other guy. I just love working hard. I want to set goals for myself and be determined to finish."
As Dewald exits Bellingham High School with his dad, Hennie jokingly describes a perk of his son's cerebral palsy.
"Sometimes I'll drag him with me to get the best parking," Hennie said.
"I'll say, 'your welcome' when I get out," Dewald responded with a laugh.
Reach Andrew Lang at email@example.com or call 360-756-2862.
Reach ANDREW LANG at firstname.lastname@example.org or call ext. 862.