BILLINGS — At a recent Billings West practice, RJ Lowdog worked in drills, took deep breaths and listened to instruction by the coaching staff.
He was no different than any other wrestler in the room.
With one exception: Lowdog has no lower legs.
But he does not use his condition as an excuse.
The sixth-ranked wrestler in Class AA at 113 pounds, Lowdog has a 14-6 record with six pins. The freshman's 32 takedowns are tied for third best on the team.
Born with disfigured legs due to amniotic band syndrome, doctors amputated his lower legs below the middle of the shin after he was born. He has worn prostheses ever since.
"The skin was there, but there was no ankle bones. Because of the band cutting the circulation off in his legs, they just didn't have a chance to grow," said RJ's stepfather, Brandon Neal.
According to the University of California, San Francisco Fetal Treatment Center website, “Amniotic band syndrome is a rare condition caused by strands of the amniotic sac that separate and entangle digits, limbs, or other parts of the fetus.”
“When I was in my mom’s womb, it detached and wrapped around my legs and it squeezed my legs,” Lowdog said.
Neal said Lowdog also was born with a dislocated hip and had surgery on it shortly after he was born. He was in the hospital for several weeks recovering and also battled pneumonia as a baby. Over the years, Neal said, Lowdog has had "19 to 20" surgeries for his hip and other complications.
"What happens to him after he's been in those prostheses every two years, his bone pencils," Neal explained. "It wears on the edges of the bone and tries to poke through the meat on the bottom of his nubs and it is painful. ... They go in and grind the bone down so it is flat and and stitch him back, so he is good to go."
At the West High wrestling room, Lowdog hustles around on the mats without the use of prosthetic devices. He is respected by his fellow wrestlers for his work ethic and determination.
He wears a sleeve similar to the one he wears under his prostheses to protect his legs when he wrestles.
"They are like knee pads. They protect his legs," Billings West coach Jeremy Hernandez said. "He can't just wear nothing. ... It would be like us going out there in bare feet. We wouldn't have any traction or grip; they would get sweaty or slip. Those sleeves on his knees are like wrestling shoes for him."
At practice, the Bears coaching staff has worked with Lowdog to help him compensate.
"We just kind of change a couple things. Obviously, guys are trying to push his head down and jump over him," Hernandez said. "He has to be aware of that and keep his head up more than others. He's at a lower level. We don't really game plan because he is down lower. We game plan in a more positive way. We are aware of the fact he is down lower than others. We don't make it a huge emphasis, but are aware of what other people are trying to do."
Junior Levi Malcolm, West’s second-ranked heavyweight, wrestled with Lowdog in AAU for the Billings Wrestling Club.
“I just thought it was crazy a kid with no legs was wrestling,” Malcolm said. “I didn’t think he would make it. After a year or two wrestling with him, his mentality wasn’t, ‘I don’t have legs,’ it was ‘I don’t have legs but I’ll do this and be successful with it.’ "
“I’ve known him a long time. RJ never asks for excuses or sympathy from anybody,” added Bears’ junior Jace Rhodes, a returning state champion who is ranked No. 1 at 152. “He wants to be treated like anybody else with, or without, legs.
“He’s very serious and definitely a good influence for the team. He’s grown into a leader. He’s been wrestling with (coach Jeremy) Hernandez at Team Champs and he leads by never stopping and taking a break. The other kids learn a lot because he never stops.”
Lowdog has earned his record and ranking through hard work and perseverance. After Hernandez demonstrated a move at a recent Bears' practice, Lowdog went to work with his two partners and tried to perfect the move. The trio took turns practicing what Hernandez had shown them.
According to Lowdog, the hardest part of a wrestling match for him is “winning.” When asked what the hardest part of practice is for him, Lowdog responds, “None of it. I am kind of used to it.”
“I just try to push through the challenges so I can succeed,” he added.
Lowdog said he owns two pairs of prostheses; one for regular activities such as going to class, and a set of blades, which he uses when running or training for sports. Over the years, Lowdog has participated in track and field, football, wrestling, boxing and cross country. He played defensive end for the freshman football team and plans on participating in distance and field events in track and field in the spring.
While he enjoys all of the activities, wrestling, which Lowdog started at age 3, is his favorite.
“I enjoy it because it’s my life,” he said, adding he wants to wrestle in college then become an engineer and wrestling coach. “I just love everything about it. Wrestling is my life.”
Lowdog, 14, who is Sioux and Assiniboine, is a typical high school wrestler who enjoys interacting with his teammates. He likes hunting and last year he shot his first buck, a 4x4 mule deer. Other pastimes are going fishing with friends and family, playing video games and reading Stephen King books.
Among the more enjoyable moments with his team off the mat was a day at the bowling alley and a waffle breakfast Hernandez hosted.
Before Lowdog joined the West team, he was on Hernandez’s AAU club, Team Champs, for three years. Hernandez said Lowdog has an extraordinary work ethic. At the Bozeman Invitational, Lowdog was pinned for the first time this season. After the defeat, he was found working out at the motel gym that night, trying to improve his conditioning so he would not be pinned again. On the team bus after the Great Falls CMR Holiday Classic, Lowdog “was doing hand grips the whole way home” to work on his arm and hand strength.
“He’s a good kid,” Hernandez said. “He is a real unique individual. There are no excuses. He doesn’t want people to look at him because he has no legs. He wants to be known as a real good, tough, hard-nosed wrestler who works hard.
“He is a team leader for West High as a freshman, which is real impressive.”
All wrestlers dream of winning a state title and Lowdog is no different, having those aspirations of being atop the podium at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark at the state tournament next month.
“I just usually train myself to get better. Nothing can stop me,” he said. “I put it into my mind to train a lot. I love sports. I get to meet different people and travel to other states.”
For Lowdog, the pursuit of his goals will never end.
And there will be no excuses along the way.