By Betsy Veysman
“There’s a theme with Vinny,” Michael Vespa said on Monday night about his 14-year old brother. “He finds a way to win. That’s the bottom line, no matter how bad it looks, he finds a way to win.”
That’s been true many times over the years. The freshman from Monroe-Woodbury High is a four-time youth New York state champion who also took third in the country at the NHSCA Middle School Nationals.
As a ninth grader wrestling varsity for the third straight time in 2011-12, Vespa went 31-8, was a Sectional runner up and qualified for the state tournament at 99 pounds while routinely weighing in around 94. Despite his hard work, however, the grappler often found himself struggling later in bouts with shortness of breath.
Less than two weeks ago, Vinny Vespa achieved a long-time goal when he took first place at the New York State Cadet Freestyle Championships in Binghamton to earn his spot on the Empire State squad going to the national championships in Fargo, North Dakota in July. He looked forward to the most prestigious event on the summer wrestling calendar, where the competition would be a notch higher than what he has seen before.
However, Vespa will have a far more challenging opponent to face before he steps on the mat again.
“I thought I was going to Fargo to represent New York at nationals,” he said. “I was really excited. But I was still having trouble with breathing so I went to the doctor after I won. That’s when they found the tumor.”
The tumor is believed to be Stage 4 Hodgkins Lymphoma.
“The tumor in Vinny’s lungs compromised his breathing more than 50%, according to the doctors,” his mother said. “We found it because of wrestling. He was having trouble after the first period. The doctor explained that once his respiration got up, he was basically working off one lung. We thought it was a few different things during the season — a new mouthpiece, asthma, bronchitis. Thank God we found it.”
After digesting the news, Vinny quickly moved into fighting mode.
“When he was diagnosed, he was crushed,” Michael Vespa said. “But he’s come back with such a vengeance, just like I knew he would. He’s the type of person that has always been really mature and dedicated. If he wants something, nothing will stop him. He’s really strong.”
Many would agree with that. His varsity coach Steve Fischbein says he’s the strongest pound for pound wrestler that he’s ever seen. At 94 pounds, he squats and deadlifts more than 225 pounds. The student with the 90 average in school also religiously follows the plans set out for him by trainer John Rahn. In fact, Michael Vespa said that even in his hospital bed, Vinny is making sure to follow his meal plans and drink his protein shakes.
He’s also finding other ways to make the hospital time tolerable.
“I’m keeping myself busy,” he said. “[On Monday] 15 people came and we had a little mini party. We went down to the lobby and had pizza and just hung out. I played mini golf at a course right outside the hospital with my mom.”
Vinny mentioned that his family has been great, but wanted to specifically mention his mother.
“She hasn’t left my bedside for the past seven days,” he said. “She’s my number one supporter.”
His extended wrestling family has been there too. That doesn’t include just his friends and teammates. It also includes grapplers from all over the country. Vinny started the @teamvinnyv twitter account on Sunday night and in one day had over 1220 followers.
“I knew I had a lot of support, but it’s been crazy,” he said. “It’s been amazing what the wrestling community has done. [NCAA champion] Bubba Jenkins retweeted something about me. [Former Olympian] Jeff Blatnick called me. It’s amazing how supportive people have been.”
He also singled out a phone call he received from one of his favorite wrestlers from the school he hopes to attend one day, Cornell University.
“[Three-time NCAA champion] Kyle Dake was out of the country at the World Cup,” Michael Vespa said. “But his first tweet when he got back to the United States had my brother in it. And then he called my brother in the hospital. It meant so much.”
The support will keep coming.
This Wednesday, local New York All-Star wrestlers will come together at Delaware Valley High School in Matamoras, Pennsylvania to face squads from the Keystone State and New Jersey. Vinny Vespa was scheduled to compete, but now $2 for each attendee will go to his family.
In addition, a takedown tournament titled “Victory 4 Vinny ” will be held at Monroe-Woodbury High School on June 30 from 8 am – 6 pm. The event will have elementary, middle school, high school and open divisions, with the possibility of a masters division as well. Registration will be $20 and all proceeds will go directly to the Vespa family. In conjunction with the tournament, will be a family fun day event with face painting, cotton candy and more.
Forever Fierce has donated over 1000 specially-designed T-shirts that can soon be purchased at foreverfierce.com. All proceeds will go to helping the Vespas.
Vinny is excited for these fundraising endeavors. He said he expects to be in the hospital for about another week and then will come home to continue his fight.
“Once you’ve wrestled, everything else in life is easy,” he said on Monday night, quoting the legendary Dan Gable. “That’s pretty much what I’m going by right now. I definitely think wrestling puts me in a better position. My trainer [Rahn] has helped me out so much this year. He helped me put on 20 pounds of mostly muscle and that will help me with what I’m going through.”
Michael Vespa believes his brother’s strength and will are the keys.
“In the semifinals at Sections he was wrestling a kid who pinned him at the beginning of the season,” Michael Vespa said. “He was down by a point with about 20 seconds left. I felt okay about it. Not for a split second did I doubt that he would win. Sure enough, with five seconds left, he got the reversal to win.”
He has a similar sense of confidence now in his younger sibling, whom he calls “Cancer’s Nightmare”.
“I guess the best way I can describe my brother is to say that he has more heart than anyone I’ve ever encountered,” Michael Vespa said. “So many people told me that if it had to happen to anyone, it might as well happen to him, because there’s no doubt he’ll get through it. I believe that. Not only that, but he’ll get through it and then go out and win a national title.”
For an update on Vinny Vespa prior to the 2012-13 wrestling season, see here.