Wrestler-Down Syndrome

Sage Valley's Deric Johnson learned in a recent wrestling match that a selfless act can be the greatest reward after he allowed himself to be beaten by Joey Pinkerton, a wrestler from Douglas with down syndrome. (AP Photo/News Record, Eric Ginnard)

GILLETTE, Wyo. — Sometimes life isn't about winning or losing.

For Camel Kids wrestler Deric Johnson, life is about doing the right thing because it's the right thing to do. That's the way he's raised.

So the Sage Valley Junior High seventh-grader had a decision to make last week at the Casper Events Center. He was competing in a USA wrestling tournament on the same mats high school wrestlers had used the night before at the state tournament.

Johnson, 13, drew Joey Pinkerton of Douglas in the third-place match of the 160-pound schoolboy division in the Casper Wrestling Club Memorial Tournament.

His heart told him to go out and win.

But his spirit said it was OK if he didn't.

You see, Pinkerton is a young man with Down syndrome, who wrestles for the Douglas Wrestling Club. He has never known the thrill of victory, just the daily grind of dealing with an incurable disorder.

Johnson knows first-hand the ups and downs of the congenital condition. His cousin, Tommy Cowley has the same disorder. So he made his decision.

"I know what it's like to have a family member with a special need," said Deric, who went into the match with a 3-12 record. "I thought it would be a good choice to let him feel good inside."

And the price of feeling good was taking another loss.

Pinkerton was thrilled beyond belief when he won a 7-0 decision, tasting victory for the first time in his career in a match Johnson's family videotaped and posted on Facebook.

"I made him wrestle. The entire time he was smiling and laughing," Deric said. "I could tell he was having fun with it. When I walked off the mat, I knew it was the right thing to do."

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Deric's father, Steve, is an assistant coach with Camel Kids. His son came to him before the match with a question. It's not something he coaches, but it is something he was proud to be a part of.

"I have four boys. We've always told them there are kids out there like Tommy with Down's. They're no different than anybody else," Steve said. "We treat them all the same.

"He asked what should I do? I said, 'I don't even know how to approach doing something like that.' So he had a long conversation with Mike Johnson, who is our head coach. He told Deric he had the opportunity to give this kid the opportunity to do something he's probably never done before."

It's been a trying wrestling season for Deric. Even though he posted a 17-15 record wrestling for Sage Valley, he's won just three matches with the Camel Kids.

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"Even though I've had a rough season — just like him — not winning many matches, I knew I could make his day," Deric said. "If he won, It would give his family and coaches something to be happy about.

"It wasn't about losing. It was about making him happy."

As the match unfolded, teammates with the Camel Kids gathered at the mat, understanding what was going on. Johnson has aspirations of one day wrestling for the Camels. But this day was about making a difference in someone else's life.

"If I would have gone out there and wrestled my hardest on him, rolled him over and pinned him in five seconds, I knew I wouldn't be very happy about what happened to him," Deric said. "One of my team members was making fun of me after the match.

"He laughed at me and said, 'You lost to a retard.' I just walked away because I knew in my heart I did the right thing."

Steve said, "All of our Camel Kids wrestlers and the guys Deric wrestles with at Sage Valley were there mat-side, smiling, and clapping when Deric shook his (Pinkerton's) hand afterward," he said.

It's not just a lasting memory for Pinkerton. It's one for a young man from Gillette, too.

"He was smiling ear-to-ear. His team was hugging him. His coaches were high-fiving him," Deric recalled. "It was something I'm proud to be a part of, treating people with respect."

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