FRANKLIN — While the Tri-County Regional Vocational Technical High wrestling team practiced in the school’s upper gym Monday morning, preparing for a meet in Agawam the next day, Ritchie Elgar sat alone in the adjacent weight room.
With his left hand, the reigning Mayflower League MVP reached to the ground and picked up a 30-pound dumbbell; his right hand gripped the side of his wheelchair, enabling him to sit up straight as he performed a biceps curl with the weight.
The 17-year-old Franklin resident, the defending state vocational school champion at 106 pounds as a sophomore, was in a car accident last summer that left him paralyzed from the sternum down.
He now uses a wheelchair, but his mind is still all wrestling.
As he finishes the set of curls, he recalled last year’s Division 3 title match against Tyngsborough High’s Kevin Morris, his only loss of the entire season.
“I should’ve beat him,” Elgar said with a half-smile, after dropping the weight to the ground and unconsciously popping a wheelie. “I really should’ve beat him.”
He doesn’t want that loss to be his final memory on a wrestling mat. That’s why during every team practice, he hits the weights.
He says he’s building himself up, hoping for an unimaginable comeback. Praying for a miracle.
He turned and grabbed the dumbbell in his right hand.
“I’m still hungry,” said the Tri-County junior.
On the morning of July 10, Elgar was sound asleep inside a yellow Pontiac Sunfire as it was headed eastbound on Interstate 84 in Connecticut.
He was returning from a short family vacation in Missouri, along with his mother, Lynne, her boyfriend, Jeffrey Lacourse, and Lacourse’s 22-year-old son, Rielly.
With the back seat folded down, Elgar was stretched out, with his feet in the trunk and his head pointed toward the windshield.
The elder Lacourse was lying next to him, his son at the wheel and Lynne Elgar in the passenger seat.
A little after 8:30 a.m., as they were passing through Tolland, Lacourse hit a lip of uneven new pavement in the fast lane, causing him to lose control of the car.
“I actually woke up a minute before it happened,” recalled Elgar. “I was looking out the windshield and I watched the car swerve into the other lane, we hit a guardrail. . . I can’t really remember any details after that.”
After hitting the guardrail on the right side of the road, the vehicle plunged 50 feet through the woods, landing overturned 30 feet below the highway.
Rielly Lacourse was the only occupant wearing a seat belt. The other three were ejected from the vehicle. Lacourse and his father were transported to Hartford Hospital by ambulance, while the Elgars were put aboard Lifestar helicopters; Ritchie was taken to Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.
“I woke up again that same day, but I was still in shock, traumatized,” he said. “I didn’t even know who I was. It took me a little bit to just understand what had happened because it was so crazy.”
All four were initially listed in critical condition — the Lacourses suffered lumbar fractures, Lynne Elgar had spinal and neck fractures — but Ritchie sustained the most serious injuries: a collapsed lung, broken vertebrae, and a partially cut spinal cord, resulting in paralysis.
He spent the next few weeks in Connecticut and then was transferred to Boston Children’s Hospital; his teammates and coaches visited several times in both locations, bringing gifts and a warm attitude.
Along the way he had multiple surgeries; doctors performed spinal fusion from his first thoracic vertebra to the 10th.
In the middle of August, he was flown to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, which specializes in providing spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation services.
“There they basically showed me everything about being in a wheelchair,” said Elgar, who personally chose the rehab center after extensive research.
“They showed me how to open up doors, how to take care of bathroom needs . . . how to just live again.”
A supportive community
Ritchie Elgar returned home in mid-October to the open arms of teammates, coaches, schoolmates, and the Franklin community.
Tri-County wrestling coach Steve LaPlante and his wife, Lisa, set up a GiveForward fund-raising webpage, raising more than $15,000.
Family and friends have also been selling “Team Ritchie” wristbands for $3 to assist in paying his medical bills.
“We’re still trying to come out of the hole,” said Lynne Elgar, noting that the MedFlight to Atlanta alone cost $12,000. “But the support from the coaches, the community — it’s just unbelievable.”
Two of Elgar’s schoolmates, Jake Ducharme and Tom Carlucci, and their carpentry instructor at Tri-County, Mark Spillane, built a platform for a ramp outside his home.
A group of 20 local firefighters, including Carlucci’s father, purchased, delivered and installed the access ramp soon after he arrived home.
“He’s just a really close friend and for this to happen to such a good kid like that, you always want to do something for him,” said Carlucci, a sophomore on the wrestling team.
Elgar has made remarkable progress the past five months.
When he first arrived in Atlanta, “the wind could blow me over. I had no balance,” he said.
“Just from coming home from Atlanta to now, I could do so many more things. Like before I couldn’t get to the ground and get back into my chair without someone lifting me up, but now I can do that. I can transfer into any car. I can go to wrestling and get on the mat, do my workouts.”
Elgar goes through those daily workouts for a reason — he says he has a hunger inside him to one day compete again. His goal is to be back on the mat as a competitor this time next season.
As he sat in the weight room, he glanced over at his teammates preparing for their next-day meet, upset he would not be wrestling as well.
“I use my anger as motivation,” he explained. “I’m never going to be as good as I was before, but I can at least try.”
Elgar hoisted himself from his chair to the weight-lifting bench, and positioned himself under the bar weighing 95 pounds — just 12 pounds lighter than his body weight — and pushed.
Two sets of eight bench presses; one set of 10. “Last time I could only do sets of six,” he said with a proud grin.
He sat up, revealing a message in white letters across the back of his black T-shirt: “Once you have wrestled, everything else is easier.”
“If I wasn’t a wrestler and wasn’t as fit, I definitely wouldn’t have survived the accident and I also would not be recovering as quick as I am,” he said. “If I didn’t have the muscles I have, I wouldn’t be able to get around as easy as I could. I wouldn’t be anywhere close to where I am now.”
This season, Elgar will serve as a motivator, a leader, a coach.
“It really inspires me because I see him doing all of this and it’s just like ‘wow,’ ” said senior captain Nick DePedro, after walking over and congratulating Elgar on his progress with the weights. “He’s really bringing us together as a team because we all want to do good for him.”
If it were up to Elgar, he wouldn’t miss a single meet or practice, so he can spend time with his wrestling family and build up his strength.
Lynne Elgar is worried, as any mother would be, but she knows her son is doing what he loves.
“He wants to wrestle and there’s nothing I can really say about it,” she said. “I’m going to let him do what he wants to do because it’s his life, and anyone who is a mother or father would understand that.”
And all he keeps saying is, “Next year — just give me one year.”
“That’s very fitting with his personality,” said LaPlante, the squad’s 11-year coach, who has wrestled with Elgar a few times at practice since the start of the season.
“He’s very driven, always had a lot of drive to be a champion, and I think that’s why he’s as good as he was and why he’s going to continue to be successful in life. He’s a hard worker, and if anybody can do it, it’s going to be him.”
Ritchie Elgar says the accident has allowed him to take a step back.
“It’s just crazy how fast your life can change,” he pondered.
“One day I was coming back from vacation and then the next thing I know I’m paralyzed. I never thought for one second that I’d have a physical limitation, just because of how fit I was, but here I am.”
His hope motivates him.
“For all I know I could gain something back,” he said. “If I got my core back, that would be very substantial. I just want to surprise everyone.
“Of course I’d love to fully recover if that’s possible. And I would love to coach other kids when I get older.
“I just want to save myself. I don’t want to lose connection with anyone I know, and I want to stay strong.”