Among high school sports, wrestling personifies an individual's one-on-one battle with an opponent like no other athletic endeavor.
Six minutes to determine a winner.
For Andrew Vannatter, the battle is 24/7/365, and his opponent doesn't wear a singlet. The Boone Grove junior has autism, a disorder that affects the brain's development of social and communication skills.
"I know I'm a little different than other people," Vannatter said, struggling to put his thoughts into words. "It's hard to understand."
Vannatter was about 5 years old when a teacher noticed deficiencies and recommended to his mom, Angie, that he be tested for a learning disability. He was diagnosed with autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. His learning ability, according to step-dad, Peter Haring, is at a third/fourth grade level and is expected to plateau there.
"You have to learn real quickly when you're dealing with someone with a learning disability that you have to have a level of patience," said Haring, who has known Vannatter since he was 8. "You don't stand in their shoes. You have to be able to adapt."
The family settled in Morgan Township, but Vannatter attends Boone Grove because of his special education needs.
"Boone Grove has been a great environment for Andrew," Haring said. "The program has been a wonderful experience. Every person is really positive. They're always there to support him. I don't know if we could have expected that at a larger school."
Haring is the athletic director at Calumet College, so he understands the value that sports can play in a person's life, regardless of the circumstances. Vannatter tried football and baseball. Last school year, his parents put him into wrestling.
"We wanted to try to find activities where he could stay focused and achieve," Haring said. "You create your own identity through sports. Wrestling's a sport where he's in control. It's him on the mat. This is his experience."
There was one problem.
"I didn't want to do it," Vannatter said.
Predictably, there were ups and downs, but Vannatter made it through the season, finishing 6-22.
"It wasn't easy," Haring said. "One minute, it's, 'I'm done.' The next, he's getting his bag, hustling me out the door."
Vannatter, who also played soccer in the fall, didn't care for the running or early morning practices, but found that he liked the physicality of wrestling.
"I got mad because I lost a lot," he said. "I (stunk). But I thought, next year, I can come back, try again and get better at it."
In the fall, Julio Cisneros was hired as Boone's wrestling coach. Cisneros is familiar with disabled athletes. His sister, Patty, is a two-time Paralympic Games gold medalist in basketball. While at Andrean, Julio coached a wrestler with cerebral palsy. Vannatter, however, was his first encounter with autism.
"Coaching somebody with a (learning) disability is different," he said.
Cisneros spoke to a friend from high school whose daughter is autistic. He also consulted with Opportunity Enterprises, an agency that provides services to the developmentally disabled.
"A lot of it is routine and that's great because that's what wrestling is," Cisneros said. "It's constant repetition. You have to keep it simple. I had to find a way for Andrew to wrestle that works best for him, then just reinforce those concepts and see how we can improve it. Everybody's different. I don't expect them all to do the same things. I can tell 10 of them to meet me at the mall and they may take 10 different ways. All that matters is that they get there."
Cisneros' connection with Vannatter developed quickly. He doesn't teach at Boone, so he checks with the school nurse, Heather Lint, regularly to see how Vannatter's day went.
"The communication has been spot on," Haring said. "He understands that Andrew needs stuff broken down very simple."
The 126-pound Vannatter went 4-1 at the Lake Station Duals to start the season and stands 12-10 overall.
"I'm happy I did better than last year," he said. "I want to try to get past sectionals."
Vannatter's progress isn't lost on his teammates.
"I think it was a big step for him to actually try out for a sport like wrestling," Boone heavyweight Zach Keilman said. "I think it's very courageous for him to keep going with the sport. It makes you feel good to see him be able to accomplish that."
Freshman Tyler Pierce, Vannatter's practice partner, sees him no differently than any other wrestler.
"He works as hard as the rest of us," Pierce said. "I respect him as much as anyone else on the team. I give him credit for having the courage to come out despite his disability."
Not all teammates and classmates are as understanding.
"Sometimes, they (pick on me)," Vannatter said. "It bugs me a lot."
Personality quirks come with Vannatter's disorder, and Keilman doesn't appreciate it when the teasing gets personal.
"I feel a person's a person," Keilman said. "It doesn't matter if they have an aspect that's a little different. I feel like you should have a grasp of a situation before you judge a person."
Outside of school and sports, Vannatter works in the summer on a horse farm, where he earned the money to buy his letterman's jacket. He also loves to play Play Station Home. In many ways, he's like any other kid. At the same time, he's not. Being 17, he wants to drive, and doesn't fully grasp why he can't.
"A lot of those questions pop up on the drive home," Haring said.
While the future holds many unknowns for Vannatter, Haring knows that they're all better for him being in wrestling.
"One win or 21 wins, it's been a great experience," he said. "We enjoy seeing him interact with other wrestlers. He doesn't know the Hanover Central kid might be a state champion. That's the part that's very rewarding. I think of stuff going on at work, I can simply watch Andrew wrestle and it erases anything going through my head. It keeps me in perspective."