Beginning early in life, his mom recalls, Nick Barrett’s been a wrestler — grabbing, hugging, holding on tight.
“Even in early intervention he liked to wrestle,” says Terry Barrett, who watches as her 16-year-old son Nick grapples with a fellow student at a late-season practice for the Sequim Wolves.
For Sequim High wrestlers, Nick isn’t the kid with Down syndrome. He’s a teammate.
“I think everybody kind of embraced him,” SHS coach Charles Drabek says. “I can tell they all genuinely care about him.”
The youngest of five, Nick Barrett grew up with his family just outside Portland, Ore. Diagnosed with Down syndrome — a birth defect in which a full or partial extra copy of a chromosome causes physical and mental development delays — Nick and family were looking for chances for inclusion as he advanced to intermediate and high school ages. The school in Oregon he was at was just so big, Terry says, that it seemed intimidating.
“It’s not that he’s excluded,” Terry says. “It’s just, he’s not had the opportunities before.”
Terry and Nick moved to Sequim in September. The change of scenery was just what he needed, Terry says. She met with SHS Life Skills teachers Bill Isenberg and Jennifer Krumpe to figure out if there was a way to get Nick involved in something after school. Wrestling seemed like a good fit.
The first thought? Perhaps he’d be a team manager.
Drabek laughs. “He couldn’t handle not being on the mat.”
Instead, the Wolves took him into their pack as a fellow grappler.
Sophomore Kevyn Ward recalls the day Nick Barrett walked into practice.
“I was just stoked; I walked up and said, ‘I’m Kevin. What’s up Nick?’” Ward recalls. “I taught him some moves as we got more into the season.”
Other teammates have stepped up to help Nick in practice, Drabek says, including senior Adam Schaepher.
They help Nick get ready each practice, helping put on his uniform and shoes, talking with him in pre-drill running, showing him moves along with others.
“They accept him but they don’t leave it at that,” Terry says. “It’s not something you would ask to fall into place. It’s an extraordinary situation.”
First time on the mat
Nick Barrett was born on Dec. 6, Saint Nicholas Day, and named after the saint often called “the Wonderworker.”
The day before his 16th birthday, Nick took to the mat for the first official wrestling match of his life at a jamboree in Port Angeles. Across the mat was Juan Blevins of Port Angeles. Despite some similarities — Blevins has similar development challenges — the two were not exactly a perfect match for a match: Blevins has about six inches and 30-plus pounds on Nick.
Didn’t matter, apparently, judging by the grin across Nick Barrett’s face as he strode across the mat.
“I was nervous but I was excited for him,” Ward recalls.
With Ward and coaches in his corner and teammates going nuts on a nearby bench, Nick struggled to gain any kind of advantage over the larger Blevins, grinning all the way.
Blevins won by technical fall in the second round, but Nick came off the mat looking like he’d won in a landslide. Bear hugs all around.
“He’s like any kid,” Drabek says, recalling a time that Nick faked being knocked out … until his coached called him out and Nick couldn’t hold back a smile.
“The nice thing is it helps the other kids, to grow and mature,” Drabek says.
A season of firsts
Terry Barrett works at Greywolf Elementary School as a paraeducator, working with second-grade teacher Renee Mullikin and learning support specialist Lara Hernandez. An ordained minister who’s looking to start some sort of community ministry in the area, Terry says her schedule and Nick’s align pretty well right now.
But wrestling season is ending soon, so she and Nick are looking for the next activity. Maybe track and field, Terry says. Nick is strong and could give the Wolves’ throwing crew a boost.
In school, Nick is busy with his new passion: cooking. He’s taking a class at Sequim High and now wants to have his own cooking show, Terry says.
“He wants to go to college now,” she says.
As a Sequim High wrestler, he’s been getting an education on the mat. Since that December match in Port Angeles, Barrett’s had nearly a dozen matches — including several rematches with Blevins. They are generally junior varsity matches against others in the 285-pound weight class; despite a workout routine that’s helped him shed several pounds, Nick is still in the heaviest weight class. “He’s always wrestling these bigger kids,” Terry says.
Sequim coaches will talk with the opposing wrestler’s coach, explaining Nick’s challenge, and though those matches usually end with a quick pin, Nick has stayed relatively injury-free and positive.
But Nick added a couple of firsts to his season recently that took coaches and teammates by surprise. On Dec. 19 in a junior varsity match with Olympic Trojan grappler Dominic Battaglia, Barrett grappled his way into the second round. In that round, Battaglia relented, allowing Barrett to pin him.
“We didn’t tell (the Olympic wrestler) to do that,” Drabek says. “How many high school kids would allow that to happen? Not many.”
“I was super excited,” Ward says. “I think I was more excited than he was.”
On Jan. 22, Nick went to the mat for his first varsity match. North Kitsap didn’t have a wrestler for the 285-pound weight class, so the referee raised Nick’s arm in victory. His official varsity record now stands at 1-0.
Reach Michael Dashiell at email@example.com.