As the injuries accumulated and the surgical incisions on his body began to overlap one another, some suggested to JD Bergman that he should perhaps consider retiring from the sport of wrestling.
He wisely chose to not listen.
Though his body may never again feel right, Bergman's athletic career has never been healthier than it is right now. The 2003 Oak Harbor graduate captured the U.S. Open freestyle championship at 96 kilograms - about 211.5 pounds - on Saturday at Cleveland State University, and in turn solidified himself as the frontrunner to represent America later this year at the world championships.
A two-time state champion for the Rockets, and the 2008 NCAA runner-up while competing for Ohio State, Bergman surrendered just one point over four matches, displaying a degree of dominance not often seen at this foremost level of competition.
Bergman beat four-time NCAA finalist and top-seeded Jake Varner in the finals, 0-1, 2-0, 5-0. Varner was last year's U.S. world team member at 96 kilos and recently concluded a sparkling collegiate career at Iowa State by winning his second straight NCAA crown. The format and rules for freestyle wrestling are dramatically different than those used at the college and high school level.
"I think a lot of wrestling fans maybe would be surprised with me beating Varner because he's done so well collegiately," said Bergman, a three-time All American for the Buckeyes. "I really prayed a lot and tried to focus and knew if I wrestled to the best of my ability it wouldn't come as a surprise to me. I knew I'd do well if my body allowed."
Even in the good times, Bergman's body rarely cooperates.
As recently as Thursday - two days before the event - Bergman injured his wrist while drilling in the OSU room with Buckeye freshman Cody Magrum, another Oak Harbor graduate. Compared to many other injuries he's suffered dating to his sophomore year of high school - four knee surgeries, a broken back, torn labrums in both shoulders that he still labors through, and torn cartilage in both his ribs and chest - last week's wrist complication was insignificant. But it was discomforting enough to get his attention.
"It's actually comical when I say I'm healthy," said Bergman, 25. "I have to shoot my wrist with cortisone during the tournament to not feel the pain."
Saturday's title was the culmination of an excellent spring for Bergman, who refrained from action for most of the fall because of - what else? - an injury. Last month Bergman took second at a tournament in Belarus and also represented the U.S. on the world cup team in Moscow. In February, Bergman won a Cuban tournament.
"The spring has been great," he said.
Not wishing to take a breather, Bergman will travel to Monterrey, Mexico, this weekend for the Pan-American Championships. His main objective - for now, until he turns his focus to making the 2012 Olympic team - is winning the U.S. world team trials June 12 in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and following with a gold medal at the world championships in September in Moscow. By virtue of Saturday's title, Bergman automatically secured a spot in the team trial finals where he'll face the winner of a preliminary tournament. Perhaps it'll be Varner or 2008 Olympian Andy Hrovat, whom Bergman beat in January to quality for the world cup squad.
"JD is the best this country has to offer at this point," said Lou Rosselli, an assistant at OSU who trains Bergman and other freestyle wrestlers at the Ohio Regional Training Center in Columbus. "If he keeps improving I think he's one of those young men that has a chance to win a [world] gold medal."
Bergman doesn't have a job, as there isn't much time for anything but training. Through various fund-raising ventures, including a dinner this past February in Perrysburg, the Ohio RTC affords Bergman and others an opportunity to train while providing them a stipend to live on. The arrangement has allowed Bergman to stick around Columbus and receive world-class training from Rosselli, a 1996 Olympian and a past USA Wrestling freestyle coach of the year.
"There wasn't a second in my mind where I thought about hanging it up," Bergman said.
"I haven't accomplished what I think I can accomplish.
"I think if I'm healthy I can beat anybody in the world at my weight class."
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As the injuries accumulated and the surgical incisions on his body began to overlap one another, some suggested to JD Bergman that he should perhaps consider retiring from the sport of wrestling. He wisely chose to not listen.