MILFORD — The Moment comes when one of the two coaches, Nick DiAntonio or Dan Duest, shouts “Good job!” “Awesome!”
The praise elevates the spirits of the wrestlers with intellectual challenges, such as Down syndrome, autism, or other learning disabilities. They glance at their parents, looking for approval. It’s there. The parents are smiling, and clapping, and very emotional.
That’s the Moment all are after. The smiles and tears, at the same time.
“Their learning curve is below someone without a disability, but they want to learn. They want to get it,” said DiAntonio. “They’re so excited to just get on the mat. Wrestling is a sport that unfortunately, in many cases, is deemed off-limits for them.”
But not here, in the wrestling room at Milford High, above the gym where DiAntonio recently started the Milford Special Athletes wrestling program.
“Their progress is nothing short of incredible,” said DiAntonio, a four-year letterman on the gridiron and on the mat at Milford High; he won the Division 2 state title at 171 pounds as a senior in 2008.
At 29, Matthew McNellage is the oldest grappler in the group. He has Down syndrome.
“All of a sudden Matthew has a new sport,” said his mother, Tammy, who drives her son to the high school from their home in Franklin. “He’s excited again. He’s motivated. He knows he’s doing good.
“Matthew feels a sense of accomplishment.”
When he executes a proper takedown of Duest, the very proud McNellage strikes a winning pose in the center of the mat. His mother takes his picture to secure the moment.
“This has been really good for me,” said McNellage. “My brother wrestled. Now it’s my time.”
Nick Giammarinaro, a 19-year-old from Ashland, has learning disabilities.
“It’s always hard finding the right athletic things for him to do,” said his father, Bobby. “The thing I like about this is that they coach them like it’s a real sport. They can tell if they’re being challenged.”
“Nick loves it,” said his mother, Marion. “It’s hard to keep him down after school, before he comes here. He’ll probably be asleep before we get home.”
“I want to get good at this,” said Nick. “I want to do it the rest of my life.” The best part is . . . ? “Everything!” he said, eyes widening.
Bobby Pouliot, a 23-year-old North Attleborough resident with Down syndrome, says the weekly Thursday night sessions are “pretty cool.”
“His brother, Domenic, was a wrestler in high school,” said Pouliot’s mother, Elena.
“Bobby always wanted to do it. They’d wrestle in the house all the time. We’ve got holes to prove it.”
When the brothers went at it, Bobby would seek a starting point advantage, but Domenic would not cut him any slack.
“He’d say ‘turn around’ and I’d say ‘not a chance. You’ve got to earn it,’ ” said Domenic.
And the best moment is yet to come.
DiAntonio has arranged for his wrestlers to compete in an exhibition matchup against grapplers from the Milford and Franklin high school programs on Nov. 16.
There will be no winners or losers. The competition, and the camaraderie, is much more important.
“I believe this sort of event has the capability to eliminate stigmas that many people hold against individuals with disabilities,” said DiAntonio, the valedictorian of the Assumption College graduating class of 2012, as well as the Northeast-10 Conference’s Scholar-Athlete of the Year after a stellar senior year on the football field. He is a graduate assistant in learning resources at Boston College, working with student-athletes.
“To make it feel like the real deal for the disabled wrestlers, the plan is to have entrance music, team warm ups, cross-mat introductions, referees and announcers.”
DiAntonio’s wrestlers will have their own “Ready to rumble!” moment.
After joining DiAntonio’s powerlifting program, Keenan Laverty, a 24-year-old Uxbridge resident, just followed him to the mat.
“Keenan loves Nick, he’s on board with whatever he does,” said his mother, Kristin. “I thought it was a great opportunity for him to learn the techniques of wrestling without competing,’’ she said, adding, “Although I wouldn’t mind if they competed.”
“He knows when it’s wrestling night,” Laverty said of her son, who is 5-foot-4, 140 pounds.
“He gets into his garb: tank top, sweat pants or shorts. It gets him in the mood. He’s totally psyched.”
Laverty also plays flag football and basketball.
“My favorite is wrestling now because I love Nick and everybody here,” he said.
When Laverty told his mother that there would be competitive wrestling, “I said ‘I don’t think so.’ But he was right,” said Kristin, who also has a 20-year-old daughter with development delays.
Duest, the director of Milford Youth Wrestling, is in awe of the newcomers.
“I didn’t think they’d pick it up so fast. It blows my mind. I haven’t been this excited about coaching wrestling in a long time.”
The first session was in early September. The participants were found through Jen Walsh, the Special Olympics director in Milford.
Duest lives in Hopedale, where he runs an auto repair shop. At Belmont High (class of 1990), he was a four-year letter winner and captain of the wrestling team.
He met DiAntonio — “everybody knows Nick” — a year ago when he was coaching the Milford Special Olympics track and field team, and DiAntonio ran the powerlifting program.
“Some people don’t think our wrestlers can do this,” said Duest. “I know they can. It means quite a bit to me, yes.”
Duest has a 12-year daughter, Kelsie, with Down syndrome. “I treat her like any other kid,” he said.
After leading a number of nonstop drills, Duest has to pause to catch his breath.
“Whew, you guys are picking this up way to fast,” he said.
“The coaches’ dedication is amazing to watch,” said George McNellage, Matthew’s father. “I never thought something like this would happen. My son’s 30 and I’m still watching him do athletics.”