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Miracle on the mat: Broken back can't stop Caldwell from winning

In the midst of all the mayhem on the mats during the first day of the state wrestling tournaments, a miracle of sorts also took place Thursday at the E Center.

The wrestlers whom Chris Caldwell defeated while he advanced to the semifinals might not believe it, but the Fremont senior barely made it to the state meet. He finished in the fifth and final qualifying spot at last week's Region 4 tournament.But that's hardly the miracle. Caldwell earned his way into the tourney - and won his two 152-pound matches on Thursday - while wrestling with a broken back.

"I couldn't be prouder of him," said Fremont wrestling coach Roger Horne, following Caldwell's unexpected victories over West's Brad Holbrook (3-1 decision) and Provo's Gerrit Greer (2-1). "It's amazing, just amazing."

Caldwell seriously injured his back - the lowest vertebrae basically snapped off - during a match at the Layton Invitational in December. The injury was in part caused by a degenerative disease called spondlothesia, and two different doctors told him he would never wrestle again because of it.

Thinking his dreams of wrestling in college were dashed, Caldwell admits he first reacted by "bawling." After six weeks, however, he was given another chance. The third specialist he saw said he would eventually need to have his back fused but that he wouldn't risk paralysis if he wrestled again.

"I ran right to my coach with the paper saying I could wrestle," Caldwell said.

"He was walking about five feet off the ground," Horne added with a smile. "Boy was he excited. Everybody was cheering at practice."

Caldwell said he demonstrated "a lot of faith" to get healed to the point where he could wrestle again.

He also said that he doesn't feel much pain after his matches, thanks to his chiropractor's help. But Horne said Caldwell is probably hurting more than he lets on.

"He won't say how much it hurts. He never complains," he said. "Even through all of this, he just did the best he could with it."

He won his first match back from the injury a few weeks ago but then lost to Sky View's Jeremy Crookston twice before the state tournament. Provo's Greer did him a favor by defeating Crooks-ton in the opening round on Thursday, and Caldwell then earned a hard-fought 2-1 quarterfinal decision over Greer to make it to tonight's semifinals.

"That was the biggest match of his whole life," said Kelvin Caldwell, Chris' father.

Caldwell will face Lone Peak's Nelson Cluff tonight in the championship semifinals, which begin with the lower weights at 6:30 p.m.

Caldwell's matches were just two of almost 700 that took place Thursday, when dirty mats made it look like a mud wrestling event was going on.

"They could have been cleaner," smirked Alta coach Mitch Lunak.

It's understandable that the 10 mats on the E Center floor wouldn't sparkle all day, considering there were 672 bouts during a 10-hour span. But the mats were dirtied because a bundle of wrestlers walked through an unpaved part of the E Center parking lot and then tracked mud onto the wrestling surface.

Even the dried-up mud wasn't as bad as one drawback of the Golden Spike Arena, where the 4A/5A tournament has been held recently.

"We may have had dirt on our mats, which is atrocious, but at least we don't have that cow palace smell," Lunak joked.

In Thursday's other action:

CLASS 5A

Layton had a strong second round, advancing seven wrestlers to the semis, to move out front after the quarterfinals. The Lancers have 77 points, but several teams are still within striking distance, especially Taylorsville (71.5), West Jordan and Alta .

Layton junior Blake Hansen scored a first-round upset by beating Hillcrest's Ryan Peterson 7-3 in the 171-pound weight class.

Hillcrest isn't out of it yet, though, thanks in part to Danny Aguirre's surprising 7-4 victory over West Jordan's Jacob Stinson in the 135 division.

Both Aguirre and his coach, Steve Bowdren, claimed they had dreamed that particular victory would happen. "I guess it's a revelation then," Bowdren said.

CLASS 4A

Looking for its first state title since 1989, Box Elder advanced six wrestlers in the championship bracket and 11 in consolation to take the early lead. The Bees have 87.5 points, followed by Spanish Fork , Payson (74.5) and Sky View .

The end of the Pleasant Grove championship era is in sight here. The Vikings, winners of seven straight 4A championships, are all but out of contention with 48 points.

CLASS 3A

Uintah looks like its headed back to its glory ways of the past. The Utes, who have taken a back seat to Wasatch the past five years, lead the Wasps 88-71 after two rounds. Uintah still has 14 wrestlers alive, including eight in the championship bracket. Morgan (68.5), Delta (66.5) and North Sanpete are also still in the hunt.