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How Penn State Wrestling’s Jarod Verkleeren Is Overcoming Type 1 Diabetes on the Mat

on January 23, 2020 9:10 AM

When Jarod Verkleeren made his Penn State wrestling debut last fall, he set the tone for his career, but not in the way many would’ve predicted at the time.

Midway through the first period of his first match, he lifted Kent State’s Kody Kamara off his feet and threw him to the mat for a fall, sending Rec Hall into a frenzy as who seemed like its latest star had arrived. That flash provided fans a glimpse of what they could be hopeful to expect over the years. It also fulfilled what Cael Sanderson brought Verkleeren — a top-ranked recruit, Pennsylvania state champion, and decorated freestyle wrestler — to Happy Valley to do: score points with big moves.

However, it was his response to the raucous crowd that was most interesting as Verkleeren shrugged off his impressive throw and meekly jogged off the mat. In the post-dual press conference, he simply said, “I expected it to be electric. And it was.”

While Verkleeren battled for time in the lineup last season and has only recently found his stride this season, that level-headed demeanor has become somewhat of the norm for him.

“I’m not one of those guys that flexes out there after a win,” Verkleeren said at the team’s weekly media availability on Tuesday. “I focus on staying in my head and being present in the match. Adrenaline spikes my blood sugar, and obviously that will cause a lot of fatigue to my body, so I won’t be wrestling the way I like to.”

Maintaining his blood sugar is something Verkleeren has needed to deal with since he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when he was 4 years old. Around the same time, he picked up a headgear and shoes for the first time. Most of his life has been a constant push and pull between a sport that requires participants to manage their weight, often by dramatically losing pounds, and a condition that forces him to manage several factors so his blood sugar doesn’t fluctuate to dangerously unbalanced levels.

Photo by Matt Sniegowski | Onward State

Controlling his adrenaline is only one consideration Verkleeren needs to make in his preparation for matches. Because of the sensitivity of his blood sugar levels, Verkleeren also needs to pay even closer attention to his diet than other wrestlers who already limit what they put into their bodies. Additionally, it’s difficult for him to cut weight since he can’t just starve himself for hours on end to make his 149 pounds at weigh-ins.

Despite these challenges, when Verkleeren began tearing it up at Hempfield High School in Landisville, Sanderson and his top-ranked wrestling program came calling. When they learned of Verkleeren’s condition, the staff looked for examples of college athletes who had overcome diabetes to succeed. Sanderson had never coached one, and they struggled to find a sample or any research to follow.

However, even without the comfort that it had been done before, Sanderson and his staff continued to pursue Verkleeren and decided to take on whatever challenges his health presented. It’s been an ongoing learning process and somewhat of an experiment for Verkleeren and his coaches, but by doing so, they have become the ones setting the example for whether someone with type 1 diabetes can be a Division I wrestler. Part of it has been additional support from the coaches, training staff and dietician, but it’s mostly hinged on Verkleeren’s own approach to working through his condition on a daily basis.

“It takes an added measure of discipline and focus on his part, but he’s done incredibly well in the sport of wrestling, which is probably one of the worst sports for diabetes just because of the weight management,” Sanderson said. “It’s definitely not ideal, but he’s done a great job. He’s still getting better and figuring out what works for him.”

Sanderson said that what kept him committed to Verkleeren throughout the recruiting process was the wrestler’s mentality. He’s described him as a “winner” and someone who “knows how to compete,” which is high praise coming from a coach who’s built an entire dynasty on the application of positive psychology in the wrestling room.

Although Verkleeren’s fall in his Rec Hall debut started his career off with a bang, he’s already encountered his fair share of struggles during his first two seasons, most notably, not being tapped as the Nittany Lions’ postseason wrestler at 149 pounds last season. This season, he lost his first two dual bouts by a total of three points, with one coming in sudden victory and the other being a difference-maker in Penn State’s first loss in nearly five years.

After sitting out a dual following his two losses and then waiting a month for the team’s next competition, though, Verkleeren has gotten off to a fast start in 2020, going 3-0 and winning each match comfortably. And Sanderson has noticed a difference. Verkleeren has gone back to being that “winner who knows how to compete,” but also one who’s unfazed by one of the sport’s most exciting environments.

Photo by Matt Sniegowski | Onward State

“He’s a little more relaxed and more confident. Just the look in his eyes has been better during the last month,” Sanderson said. “We believe and Jarod believes that if you’re focused and disciplined enough, you believe in yourself, and you’re willing to pay the price, you can do anything.”

Verkleeren, one of the latest Sandersonian disciples to adopt the coach’s empowering, gratitude-based ways, has echoed that resilience. He believes his bouts with Type 1 diabetes are just another thing on his plate.

“Everyone’s adversity is different. It can be injuries and stuff like that,” he said. “For me, it’s focusing on keeping my blood sugar good…That’s a challenge going into matches at times, but everyone has different adversity, and everyone has it, so it’s about how you deal with it and adapt to what you need to do.”

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