Creating an advantage: Wrestler Christian Burdick is different from his peers but doesn't let that stop him
BENNINGTON -- As Christian Burdick grows from an 11-year-old 5th grader at Molly Stark Elementary School into a high school student and beyond, he is going to have to make tough decisions all adolescents must make.
Decisions on what clothes to wear, what his first car will be, how he wants to look and what sports he wants to play.
But the biggest decision of Burdick's life was made before he could even communicate. It will be the decision that defines his physical appearance and how he handles everything that lies ahead.
It has also led Christian to the decision of who he wants to be as he grows up, and how he wants to tackle those challenges put in front of him.
Burdick, born Dec. 27, 2002, at Southern Vermont Medical Center, came into this world without a fibula in his left leg. As a result, he had to have his foot amputated when he was only a year old.
Since then, he has worn a prosthetic leg that has a metal foot attached. He has worn his prosthetic limb throughout his life, including the start of the youth wrestling season this year with the Catamount Youth Wrestling program.
But when Christian went into his first meet of the season, he was forced into making a decision that could have been one of the most embarrassing moments of his life -- whether or not to wear his prosthetic leg.
As Christian started wrestling his opponent during his second match of the tournament, he felt his left leg get lighter.
His prosthetic had fallen off.
"I was kind of embarrassed about it," Christian recalled after a practice earlier this week. "[My coaches] told me to wrestle without it, just try it once. I did, and I really liked it. I was moving around the mat and had all this stuff. I could move really fast, and with my leg I couldn't move as fast."
So the decision was made. He would forgo wearing his prosthetic whenever he wrestled. And while this choice means that he will always look different than the kid across the circle from him, Christian just wants to wrestle like everyone else.
"It's kind of like, I try to do my best and everything, I try to be like a regular kid and just do it," he said as sweat dripped down from his pink mohawk. "Mostly, it's just about how much potential I have and everything. Also, it's how I act in here [the wrestling room]. If I act tough in here, I act tough in the match. If I act weak in here, I act weak in the match. I try to act as hard as I can here so when I get into the tournaments I get better and I don't just give up."
His youth coach, Kyle Willard, remembers when Burdick's prosthetic came off. It was the same moment he made his decision on how Burdick should go forward in wrestling.
"There was a hush in the room, and he didn't miss stride," Willard said. "I took it off the mat and he kept wrestling and ever since then he has been wrestling without it. That day I told him it's not a disadvantage, it's an advantage. It's going to change perspective and on the mat that can be a good thing and off the mat it can be a good thing."
His disability, though, nearly kept him from being able to walk on his own -- let alone wrestle.
His mother, Amanda Corey, delivered her son via C-section. While she was in recovery, the rest of her family learned about Christian's deformed leg.
"It was hard, especially not knowing when he was born that there was anything wrong," Corey said. "When I got out of recovery, my mom was the one that explained what was going on. It was pretty devastating. The hospital didn't have any answers."
Without his fibula, Christian's left leg was an inch-and-a-half shorter than his right leg. Bones in his foot were missing, and he only had three toes. He also suffered from hip dysplasia and had to spend the first six months of his life with a body brace. Christian spent the better part of his early years shuttling back and forth to Shriner's Hospital in Springfield, Mass., to get treatment.
With the effects of his missing bone already wreaking havoc on his body, Christian's doctors suggested to his mother that he could either have his foot amputated then, or suffer from a lifetime of limitations and surgeries.
"I said to the doctor ‘I know you can't answer this in a professional aspect, but as a parent, what would you do?'" Corey said. "He said to me ‘I'd have the foot removed.'"
So the decision was made.
"I'm glad that's what I picked," Corey said. "He wouldn't be living this life [otherwise]. He would be living the life of a disabled child. He is disabled, but he is not. He lives the life of a normal child."
And whether it's on the wrestling mat, dancing in his home or running around the neighborhood, it is hard to notice that Christian is different than his peers.
Corey describes her son like any mother would. A rambunctious pre-teen with barrels of energy who gets sidetracked by the more fun aspects of his adolescence.
And he has never let his foot hold him back. He is not interested in using excuses to explain his disability. He wants to prove that he is like everyone else.
That extends to the mat, and his coaches make sure that Christian gets the same treatment that other wrestlers get when they enter the program.
"Tactically, do we fool around with things? Sure," coach Willard said. "But as a wrestler he does absolutely everything else. He is expected to sprint and he is expected not to be last in a sprint. He is expected to do everything everyone else does. If he is treated like that, and treated as an equal as a wrestler, it's fine. He obviously [is different], and it is a positive thing for everyone. It's pretty inspiring, seeing someone that has to face a different challenge every time they step out on the mat."
The challenge is something Christian likes. While his disability makes him look different than other wrestlers, he is using his unique frame to his advantage.
"I wasn't exactly thinking [wrestling without my foot] would work as good, because I thought people would just go for my head and take me down," Burdick said. "Once it fell off in the match, I was moving around and it felt really good. I was getting good moves and they had trouble getting me, and I knew that [it] was an advantage."
During matches, Burdick said that he doesn't think his opponents think too much about his leg. But in the audience, people notice. It has led to strangers coming up to Christian, his mother and his coaches to tell them how inspired they are by his determination.
One woman even took it a step further. After meeting Christian at a meet in Vergennes several weeks ago, she bought Anthony Robles' autobiography -- about Robles overcoming being born with one leg and going on to win an NCAA Division I wrestling championship -- as a gift for Burdick. But she did not just give him the book fresh off the shelf.
She shipped it to Robles to sign -- which he did -- and presented it to Christian after he won his first tournament last weekend in Fair Haven.
"I was really happy [to get the book] because he is another inspiration," Christian said. "He is one of my favorite wrestlers and I watched him on YouTube. He is an NCAA champion, which is really cool. I try to learn from him, too, the strategies that he uses and everything with his leg."
His mother recalled the emotions that swept over her when the book was presented to her son.
"It was awesome. Not just [him winning the tournament], but being presented with the book all within one day was overwhelming. It was awesome for him, it was awesome for us. It was a great day."
Christian was especially pleased because the win at Fair Haven was a goal he had written for himself on the family refrigerator. And once it was in writing, Burdick knew he had to do it.
"[Winning] was the goal on my refrigerator, I put it on three days before [the meet]," he said, writing in the air of the wrestling room as if he was in his kitchen. "My goal was to come in first place, and I did. I was really happy about that, it felt awesome."
While the notoriety Christian has gained might make some uneasy, he has embraced it. While he enjoys being able to inspire other people, he is quick to point out that he does not wrestle to prove a point. He does it because he loves the sport.
"I feel really good [about inspiring people] because, even knowing I have one foot, it doesn't really matter. It's not an excuse of wrestling. There are no excuses in wrestling. I really get happy, it's just, I like inspiring people to wrestle with things like this. It's just fun."
Christian has had to face challenges in how he wrestles. Without a second foot to plant on, his stance has had to change to compensate. It's been difficult, but he is starting to see the fruits of his labor.
"Lets say if I wrestle, because I'm left-handed, I usually stick [my left leg] out," he said, motioning toward his legs. "But I'm starting to get used to putting [my right] foot out and putting this one back. I'm getting used to all this new stuff."
For his coach, the only thing that makes Christian different is how he has to set himself.
"The only challenge is the slight different approach on a tactical level," Willard said. "On the other levels, you are at an advantage in my opinion. Wrestling takes a certain level of toughness. The intangibles in wrestling are the guts, the toughness and a never-say-die attitude. He's a kid that's already established that, and you know it before he hits the mat. We knew that right away when he came to us that he was already brave, he already had some challenges and had risen to the occasion already. That part was set. The base, the foundation, was very much concrete."
As Burdick's understanding of wrestling has grown, so have the results. Burdick started out the year losing in matches, including the match in the tournament where his prosthetic limb came off, but he is now coming home with wins. He now has a third-place finish, two second-place finishes and his win at the Fair Haven meet under his belt. This weekend, Burdick will wrestle in the state youth tournament in the 5th/6th grade division.
The goal on the refrigerator this week?
"Come first in states. That'll be another goal that goes up on the refrigerator," Burdick said as a smile stretched across his face.
His coach agrees with that goal, but put an even loftier one on his wrestler.
"Someday, he will be a state champion on the high school level, I'm confident of that," Willard said, his eyes meeting Christian's as he spoke. "There are so many things there already. He has complete and utter passion. He comes in every day ready to work. He loves it, that's established. All this program needs is someone who wants to be here, and [they] will be successful."
But as Christian approaches junior high school, there will be other obstacles for him to climb over.
"As we transition, as puberty hits, as the physicality of the sport [increases], we will probably hit some speed bumps along the way," Willard said. "But Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither is a wrestling career."
And while Christian has yet to come across a wrestler that has a disability like himself, he has a message to anyone that is inspired by his story.
"I'd just say never give up and do what you have to do," Burdick said. "Just be a normal kid. There is nothing bad about you, it's just life. You are normal, really. Just try your hardest and do what you have to do."
Geoff Smith is the assistant sports editor at the Banner. He can be reached at 802-447-7567, ext. 120, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @GSmith_Banner.
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