Wrestling was a big part of Derek Carnes’ family history.
So he continued the tradition, even with just one leg.
The former Murray County High School student graduated in 2010 and spent four seasons in the Indians’ wrestling program, competing at the varsity level his sophomore year. He did this with a prosthetic left leg, and he is one example of a handful of student-athletes in nearby high schools who are competing or have competed at the varsity level despite either mental or physical disabilities.
The U.S. Department of Education is directing all public schools to provide more opportunities for students with disabilities in interscholastic sports. It’s a clarification of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s Section 504, which tells schools “that access to interscholastic, intramural and intercollegiate athletics is a right.”
The new initiative asks for reasonable changes to rules, so long as it doesn’t affect the game.
Carnes thrived beyond any accommodations made in practices and at competitions. He was born without a fibula in his left leg and had an amputation from the knee down. In practices, he wrestled with a prosthetic leg. In competitions against other schools, he left it off the mat.
He wrestled for 15 years, something he was brought into from family history.
“I wrestled everybody at practice,” he said. “There wasn’t much I could do. I learned every day in practice.”
He is a student at Georgia Northwestern Technical College with a degree focus in business management. In high school, he focused on being the best wrestler he could be.
“Wrestling was a big thing in my family,” Carnes said. “My dad, grandpa and uncle did it. I was always big in sports. My dad asked if I wanted to do it and so I tried wrestling.”
There have been others with disabilities, too, but coaches within the public schools system declined to give names, citing student privacy laws.
“We’ve had a student, I guess it was about 3 or 4 years ago, his vision wasn’t that great,” Northwest football coach Josh Robinson said. “He ran track for us and did pretty good (in one of the relays and as a long-distance runner).”
Said Dalton coach Mike Duffie, “Physical disabilities? No. Mentally challenged? Yeah, through the years I’ve had kids who had learning disabilities. ... Not only have they made the team, but they’ve been good players.”
There were some challenges for Carnes. His moveset was limited and in practice there were some moves such as leg takedowns that Carnes’ partner couldn’t practice on him. And in competitions, there were some opponents who did not know how to handle wrestling him.
“There were some people who said, ‘What the heck do I do?’” Carnes said. “There were some who wrestled as long as I had and knew what to do. Some were freaked out but some wrestled me normal.”
And there was the two last years when he didn’t make varsity due to injuries, including fatty tumors on the remainder of his left leg that caused staph infections. But he still won a wrestleoff his sophomore year for the Indians’ 138-pound varsity spot, an example that his disability did not entirely keep him from competing with able-bodied students.