When Vinny Vespa was first diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, doctors told his mother Lisa Vespa that he could need treatment for up to a year.
Instead, five months later, almost to the day, Vinny Vespa returned to live wrestling with his teammates at Monroe Woodbury High School.
“I’m working really hard,” he said. “I definitely missed it. I’m really happy to be back on the mat.”
The truth is, he never really left. While Vespa wasn’t allowed to go live during the treatment process, partially because of a port he had in his chest, he never stopped training and lifting.
And he certainly never lost connection with the wrestling community.
Vinny and his mother Lisa were amazed by the many contributions and well wishes they received, not only in Section 9 but throughout New York State and even beyond.
While they appreciated everything that was done for them, the Takedown Tournament held at Monroe Woodbury High School on June 30 was the highlight. Over 350 wrestlers competed in the event, which also featured carnival games and other family entertainment.
“It was really fun to watch everyone come out that day not only to wrestle but also to support me,” Vinny Vespa said. “I even got to see my brother Michael wrestle again, which was really cool to watch. I was surprised that people came from all over. I knew there were a lot of people supporting me, but I didn’t expect that many people to be there. I was really grateful.”
“It was surreal for me,” Lisa Vespa added. “It was so heartfelt and it showed the tremendous commitment that the wrestling family has. I was taken aback by the level of support and I was so appreciative. It was amazing.”
It was a high point, followed by a summer filled with treatment regimens and hospital visits. A few days receiving chemotherapy. A few days at home. More chemotherapy. Then a few weeks off and the process started all over again.
“The whole summer was a blur,” Lisa Vespa said. “It was definitely rough, but Vinny was an amazing patient. He never complained. He just did what he needed to do. He was never looking for pity or praise.”
In September, even when in the midst of radiation treatments (and attending school again), Vinny felt like he had turned a corner.
“I really started to feel better,” he said. “I felt less nervous about things – like I knew I was going to be alright. I started thinking about wrestling and getting back to it as soon as possible.”
A few weeks later, in October, Vinny had a PET scan and the doctors shared good news.
“I’m grateful to say that he’s in remission now,” Lisa Vespa said. “We know it’s a long haul. He’ll have another PET scan in January. But we don’t have to go back to the doctor until then. There aren’t any restrictions on him now, he just has to listen to his body to figure out what he can and can’t do.”
It took no time at all for Vinny to join Monroe Woodbury practice. In fact, he participated the same day he was cleared.
“I started right away,” he said. “It’s been really cool, being around the team and wrestling with my teammates. I think I’m starting to get fully back into it, but I’m definitely already better than last year because of how I feel.”
How he felt last year during matches was tired and out of breath. He was unable to do what he wanted to late in matches and he was often unable to escape when he was in the down position.
“We couldn’t figure out why he couldn’t get out on bottom when he wrestled,” Lisa Vespa said. “I actually took him out of practice on a Saturday morning in January and asked his coach’s permission to send him to a clinic focusing on that. Looking back now, it was insane. Vinny had been wrestling since he was three or four years old — of course he knew how to do it. We were just grasping at straws, trying to come with any reason why he was having trouble. I knew something was wrong, I just couldn’t figure out what.”
The Vespa family explored a number of options, including a new mouthpiece, asthma and bronchitis. In addition, Lisa Vespa said she considered cancer back in November of 2011 when Vinny complained of terrible itching, which was the only symptom a friend of the Vespa family had when diagnosed with cancer. However, after a doctor’s visit and some blood work, the Vespas came home with cream for the itching and went back to the drawing board.
It was months later, after Vinny struggled while winning the New York State Freestyle championship in May, that a tumor was found in his lungs that indicated that he had Stage 4 Lymphoma.
Having overcome so much, some people would be satisfied with simply putting on a singlet and getting on the mat again. Not Vinny Vespa.
“My plan is to wrestle every chance my coach gives me to wrestle,” said the 2012 state qualifier. “As long as it benefits the team, I will go out and wrestle, even I have to bump up a weight. But for Sections and the end of the year, I’m planning to go 99 pounds again. I’m still light. I was at the state tournament and I want to be there again. This time I want to get to the finals and try to win it.”
That would be a fitting ending for a wrestler who has already won significant battles.
“For me, the most important thing is to look at him and know that he feels 100% again,” Lisa Vespa said. “Because it was obvious last year that he didn’t feel anywhere near 100%. Getting back on the mat five months after starting treatment says so much about Vinny. But I also attribute a lot of it to the tremendous support from the wrestling community and to the sport of wrestling itself. From wrestling, Vinny has learned an inner strength and perseverance. He learned that you don’t give up and you dig deep when things get tough. Wrestling gives you a level of confidence that no other sport can give you. I have no doubt that wrestling has helped him get where he is now.”
More Season Preview Articles:
Section 1 Feature: Aslanian and Realbuto, All-State Wrestlers and Workout Partners, Seek to End Their Careers on Top of the Podium
Section 4 Feature: Looking for “Number Nine”: Reggie Williams Aims to Make History at Johnson City
Section 5 Feature: The “Miracle” Continues: The Return of Aaron Paddock
Section 11 Feature: Nick Piccininni Looks to Continue Winning Streak