Cullen Fitzgibbons was born with an extra chromosome in his DNA, but he doesn’t see that as an obstacle to participating in high school sports.
Fitzgibbons, who has Down syndrome, has wrestled for Los Alamitos (California) High School for the past four years, and out of 28 matches, he has not won a single one.
He carries a bag of Cheerios with him to every meet, but he doesn’t use them to measure the number of wrestling matches he’s won. If he did, he’d be empty-handed. Instead, he uses Cheerios to measure the number of friends he’s gained through high school wrestling. Cullen has to have a lot of trust in someone before he will share his Cheerios, but he has done so with several of his teammates.
“I knew I was in when I finally got a Cheerio from him,” said Los Alamitos head wrestling coach Kenny Torres.
Cullen’s developmental disabilities make learning a struggle, but his parents fought to keep him in regular classrooms.
When it was time for him to start high school, the Fitzgibbons were afraid they would have to put up a fight to keep Cullen in a challenging educational environment. However, they were pleased to work with Karen Maffett, the special needs coordinator at Los Alamitos, who not only welcomed the idea of keeping Cullen in regular classrooms, but also encouraged him to try wrestling.
Cullen’s dad Billy, who was a Top 10 NCAA Division I wrestler in college, quickly offered to help as an assistant coach. When Cullen showed up for his first practice, coach Torres introduced him to the team so that they would be aware of his special needs.
“They embraced the idea of having him on the team and took him under their wing,” Torres said. “They make sure he’s included in everything and doing the right exercise.”
Since then, Cullen has been the first to arrive at practice, five days a week, and he’s never missed a practice or a tournament. He doesn’t get to wrestle at every meet and he’s never made varsity, but that doesn’t stop him from coming back. He does the best he can and is always positive and smiling, Torres said.
“When he first came in as a freshman, he was nonverbal and very shy,” Torres said. “Over the years, the kids have pulled it out of him and he’s much more vocal.”
Just as Cullen’s teammates have helped him open up in social situations, he has also had an influence on the wrestling team.
Some wrestlers who were not willing to put in the hard work have seen Cullen’s commitment, which motivated them to put forth their best effort. Also, his frequent hugs and kisses on the cheek have helped some teammates widen their acceptance of affectionate physical contact.
In the final match of his high school wrestling career, there was a glimpse of hope for Cullen’s first victory. Two more points would have won the match, but when time ran out, the referee raised his opponent’s arm.
Cullen briefly had a look of disappointment, but when the crowd started cheering for him, he raised his arms high and celebrated a successful end to his high school wrestling days.
At the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) state wrestling championship finals, Cullen was honored as “Inspirational Wrestler of the Year.” He was the first-ever recipient of the award, given by the California High School Wrestling Coaches Association.
After seeing himself on the Jumbotron, Cullen grabbed his medal and raised it high above his head.
“I was curious to see if he would fully understand it, but I think he fully got it,” Torres said. He said the award shows that “hard work does not always result in the championship.”
After four years of never winning a match, Cullen Fitzgibbons is still a winner in the hearts of many in southern California.
“For a coach, any time a kid wants to be on your team who has some type of special need, it’s a great opportunity to teach the kids on your team values that they’ll be using for the rest of their lives,” Torres said.
Cassie Krisher is a spring semester intern in the NFHS Publications/Communications Department. She is a senior at Butler (Indiana) University, majoring in journalism and media arts.