Philipsburg Wrestler Stanghill Overcomes Diabetes to Chase Olympic Dream

Missoulian – by AJ Mazzolini

Tears rolled down Jayla Vick’s face and Barrett Stanghill could only watch. She felt guilty, blamed herself, for the hospital bed now hugging her son.

Was it in her family’s genes? Maybe from a great grandfather?

Stanghill, mere days shy of his 21st birthday, skipped past grief and let his mind drift out of the Kootenai Health Center in Coeur d’Alene. He was on the mat, his true habitat as a Greco-Roman wrestler with Olympic aspirations.

He thought about his future in wrestling.

He thought about it while doctors first discussed his torn elbow ligament. He thought about it as a routine check-in turned atypical and the attention shifted to his frequent urination, dizziness and blurred vision. He thought about it through a 5-hour emergency room stay and he thought about it more once doctors came back with a diagnosis.

His blood sugar was off the charts in the 900s. He had Type 1 diabetes.

Stanghill had made a habit of overcoming odds, though. He picked up wrestling in junior high, turning a late start in to two Montana state championships at Philipsburg’s Granite High. He left school a year early for the Northern Michigan Olympic Training Site, the only high schooler enrolled.

But on this day in June of 2014, insulin injections doing the one thing his sculpted and inculcated body could not, the prospect of a national title and donning the Stars and Stripes seemed farther away than ever.

“Can I do this? Can I wrestle with this disease?” he asked his doctors.

***

Wally Stanghill remembers the day his only son approached him about joining the wrestling team. Barrett was in seventh grade, hardly a shadow of the physical specimen he’d grow into, and lacked any experience.

Wally had wrestled a bit at Helena High and did his best to dissuade the boy without being to hard on him.

“I told him it was too late,” explained Wally, an industrial tech teacher at Granite High. “I was like, ‘You can’t wrestle with these kids who have been wrestling since they were kindergartners. It’s just too much to make up, technique-wise.’

“And of course he proved me wrong as he has on numerous other occasions.”

Though not right away.

Barrett was the low man in the wrestling room that year. He didn’t win a match. The next season, though, he claimed a middle school state title.

“What I learned most from those two seasons: If I train hard, I can win,” the younger Stanghill recalled.

The training continued, more and more hours in the gym each year. By his sophomore season of high school, Stanghill, competing with the Drummond-Philipsburg co-op, became the most dominant wrestler in Class B-C at 160 pounds.

A state championship followed. Then another.

The Class B-C ranks couldn’t contain Stanghill’s ambition. Instead of returning to school for his senior year, the 18-year-old opted to finish his degree online and move to Marquette, Michigan.

The town — small by most standards with about 20,000 residents, though enormous when compared to P-burg — sits on the north side of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Its Northern Michigan University houses perhaps the most renowned U.S. Olympic wrestling feeder program in the Greco-Roman style.

No precedent existed for the move, NMU Greco head coach Rob Hermann said. Stanghill was unique, the first to attempt such a feat.

The student-athlete, who earned his GED while also taking nine college credits that first year, made an impact right away. He finished second at the 2013 FILA Junior Nationals in Las Vegas at 74 kilograms (about 163 pounds).

His technique was decent, but unrefined, Hermann said. What stood out was the young man’s power.

“His biggest asset is his strength. He’s as strong as a bull,” Hermann quipped.

A year later, Stanghill dominated the Junior Nationals bracket. No wrestler scored a point on Stanghill in four matches and the NMU representative notched back-to-back technical falls in the semifinals and finals, 9-0 and 8-0, respectively.

But the physicality of Stanghill’s passion was about to catch up with him.

***

In his third match of the 2014 FILA Junior World Team Trials, Stanghill exited a stoppage in the second period from the down position, facing the mat. His opponent, using a gut wrench hold, tried to roll the downed wrestler to his right, pinning Stanghill’s arm awkwardly under their combined body weight.

The unnatural bend in his right elbow resulted in an avulsion fracture, breaking a piece of bone off in the elbow joint, and ruptured Stanghill’s ulnar collateral ligament.

Such an injury required “Tommy John” surgery, a procedure most frequently seen after baseball pitchers blow out their arms through overuse.

It was on a trip back to visit his mother in Coeur d’Alene that summer that doctors discovered there was more that ailed him.

The diabetes diagnoses explained a lot, Stanghill figured. The exhaustion, the weight loss, the issues with his vision.

His coach at World Team Trials, NMU assistant Aghasi Manukyan, had noticed something, too.

“After my first match, my coach was like, ‘Your legs are black,'” Stanghill recalled, deciphering the Armenian’s rudimentary English. “He could tell something was wrong. I definitely felt very strange.

“The wrestling mentality, ya know, is nothing’s wrong and keep pushing through.”

The next few months were spent rehabbing and trying to control Stanghill’s newfound illness. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which a person’s pancreas stops producing insulin. The body can no longer process sugars like glucose into energy. Insulin must be introduced.

After consulting with doctors at the Mayo Clinic and a long phone conversation with former Olympic swimmer and gold medalist Gary Hall Jr., himself a diabetic, Stanghill altered his diet and fine-tuned his approach to working out.

Still, Stanghill wondered. How would his body react during real competition? His first tournament back, the 2015 Senior Nationals in Las Vegas in May, provided an unfortunate answer.

The grappler won his first two matches before fatigue set in. His blood sugar spiked into the 300s and 400s, well above the typical 100-to-140 mg/dL range (milligrams of glucose per deciliter of blood).

“It was out of control,” explained Stanghill, who withdrew after a semifinal loss. “Your balance is off, everything. You don’t feel well at all.

“After Nationals, I was really considering stopping.”

***

Stanghill needed to test himself again. He entered the United World Wrestling University Nationals three weeks later.

With his father Wally at his side to help him regulate his blood sugar — “My dad would harp on me, ‘Ya gotta check it, ya gotta check'” — the wrestler felt better than he had in more than a year.

It showed. Stanghill captured the 75-kilogram national title in Akron, Ohio with a 2-1 victory over Iowa’s Burke Paddock, a former Junior National champ as well.

“I felt just like I did after winning the Montana state tournament,” Stanghill offered with a charming laugh. “Just on top of the world.”

Paddock’s aggressive approach on the mat clashed with the Montanan’s deliberate defense. Each time the Hawkeye wrestler shot in, Stanghill latched his elbows to his ribs, sliding the trespasser down off his body.

Paddock was called twice for passivity, Stanghill’s fortified walls rendering his approach useless, to forfeit two decisive points.

“People call me more of a defensive (wrestler), maybe even characterize me as boring,” Stanghill began, “but with the best wrestlers in the world, you watch them and they’re so very sound. They’re not looking for huge things. That’s what I tried, to adapt.”

Added Coach Hermann, “He knows what he wants. He knows what his strengths are and he stays away from the position he doesn’t want to be in.”

University Nationals provided another feel-good moment for Stanghill — a chance to compete against an old friend.

Charlo High graduate Jacen Petersen, now a rising-sophomore at Arizona State, met Stanghill in the semifinals of the tournament. The two Montana Class B-C wrestlers hadn’t met on the mat since February 2012 when the Philipsburg boy schooled his Mission-Charlo counterpart in the state finals.

While Stanghill’s specialty is Greco-Roman, Petersen likens himself a freestyle wrestler, the other discipline offered at the Olympics. But the latter grappler had his eyes set on making the semis in Greco.

“I knew I’d wrestle him one way or another because that was the goal,” Petersen said. “I didn’t really care who else was there. I always want to try and beat him.”

Petersen chuckled.

“It has not worked out yet.”

Stanghill got the best of his Big Sky buddy, 4-2, to run his career record to 4-0 in the rivalry. Petersen finished third at the national meet.

***

Just as he did back in Philipsburg, Stanghill is leaving Northern Michigan early.

With his health back in order, the wrestler has turned his focus squarely on the Olympics. After a two-month immersion training experience in Armenia over the winter, Stanghill has joined the program at Team USA’s Olympic Complex in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The 2016 Olympic Games in Rio do Janeiro might be a long shot — Olympic Trials are held next April, just nine months from now, at Iowa City’s Carver-Hawkeye Arena — but Coach Hermann expects to see his unique protégé in an Olympic singlet soon enough.

“I’ve got, like, five or six guys that I can put my finger on that are gonna make the Olympic team, probably by 2020,” Hermann boasted. “He’s one of ’em.

“There’s not a doubt in my mind that he’ll make an Olympic team some day. Or win a medal.”