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A Gripping Tale

Huntingtown Wrestler Jenifer Never Lets His Birth Defect Keep Him Down

By Alan Goldenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 11, 2005; Page D01

Staring at the last chocolate chip cookie in front of him, Trevon Jenifer is contemplating his discipline. How, like all of his teammates on Huntingtown High School's wrestling team, is Jenifer going to make weight, especially if he wants to wrestle at 103 pounds, the lightest class on the team?

"Everybody's trying to lose weight," Jenifer tells a group of friends sitting nearby at a recent Huntingtown basketball game. "But I've got to gain weight, like eight, nine pounds."

Trevon Jenifer, in a match against Jonathan Phills of Oxon Hill, draws a crowd whenever he wrestles. "The whole stage stops to watch this kid," says Jim Johnson, a referee who has worked other matches but is not pictured here. (Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

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Jenifer laughs and chomps into the cookie. That's taking one for the team. Then he plants his hands down on the first row of bleachers, levels his torso into his wheelchair parked on the gym floor, and whizzes to get another cookie.

Jenifer, 16, was born without any legs, the result of a condition called congenital amputation, in which a part or entire limb is missing at birth. Jenifer's 95-pound body ends at his hip sockets.

And that's where his story begins.

Wheelchair track and basketball, Jenifer's hobbies the past 10 years, allowed him the rush of a sport, yet failed to offer him the contact he yearned for from athletics. So he decided to try wrestling this season. Going into tonight's home match against Thomas Stone, the junior has forged an 8-7 record with a combination of balance and upper-body strength that has helped him overcome his condition.

"This kid is utterly amazing. I was just awestruck," said Jim Johnson, who officiated one of Jenifer's matches last month. "I've been refereeing since 1968. I coached [wrestling] at the Maryland School for the Blind [from 1979 to '84] and, let me you, this kid tops all of that.

"It was thrilling to watch him. I was at a point where it was hard to maintain the objectivity of being an official, instead of just watching to be entertained."

According to Mitch Hull, director of national teams for USA Wrestling, while the sport has a history of athletes with similar disabilities, he is unaware of another current high school wrestler like Jenifer.

"Somebody with these types of handicaps has been eliminated from team sports," said Hull, who, in 1989 at Purdue University, coached Terry Kissel, who lost his left leg in a farming accident as a youth. "Our sport is a situation where it challenges you -- 'How hard are you going to work?' [Your opponent] might be stronger. He might be quicker. But that element of working hard, there's an appeal to a person who's handicapped. You can't measure their heart and that's what this sport really measures."

Kyle Maynard, also a congenital amputee whose arms end just above his elbows and has no legs aside from a pair a short limbs and misshapen feet, attracted national attention last year when he went 35-16 as a senior at Collins Hill High in Suwanee, Ga. Nick Ackerman, who lost both his legs at the knees to amputation when he was 1 1/2 because of a life-threatening form of bacterial meningitis, won the 174-pound title at the 2001 NCAA Division III Championships while wrestling for Simpson (Iowa) College.

Ask Jenifer about Maynard and Ackerman, and he returns a broad smile and acknowledgment of their stories. Press him and he'll say the one disabled athlete who motivated him was Neil Parry, who played one down for San Jose State's football team in 2003 with a prosthetic right leg, following a horrific on-field injury three years earlier that required amputation just below the knee.

"I heard about those stories, but I really didn't see them or pay attention to it," said Jenifer, whose family moved to Calvert County from Capitol Heights last April. "They do their thing and they did good, but I want to do better. I want to go beyond what they did."

Jenifer's athletic role model is two-legged, two-armed Washington Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington. Mention his name and Jenifer zips across his bedroom to grab his Redskins cap.

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