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Maleek Williams' comeback leads to NCAA wrestling finals

Upper Iowa junior earns medal two years after stroke and heart surgery

Upper Iowa’s Maleek Williams drives back Seton Hill’s Vincent Distefanis during their 125 lbs. quarterfinal match at the NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships at the U.S. Cellular Center in northeast Cedar Rapids on Friday, March 9, 2018. Williams won. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Upper Iowa’s Maleek Williams drives back Seton Hill’s Vincent Distefanis during their 125 lbs. quarterfinal match at the NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships at the U.S. Cellular Center in northeast Cedar Rapids on Friday, March 9, 2018. Williams won. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Maleek Williams overcame battles this weekend that paled in comparison to the ones he had to win just to get in position for a national title.

The nation’s top-ranked wrestlers, tied scores with time ticking down and the demands of one the toughest sports seem less challenging when you’ve already won a fight for your life.

Williams reached the 125-pound finals of the NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships on Saturday at the U.S. Cellular Center. He earned All-American honors in his third nationals appearance. The feat came about 2 1/2 years after suffering a stroke and open-heart surgery to repair a hole in his heart that contributed to it.

“With God all things are possible,” Williams said. “If he really wanted to, he could have took my life that day and I wouldn’t have been able to do it, but he gave me a second chance for a reason. I’m pretty sure this is the reason why he gave me that second chance.”

Faith never wavered in Williams, who was just 19 at the time of the stroke. He continued to tell himself he would return to the mat during preparation for the procedure and his recovery. Williams qualified as a freshman just a few months later, but he wasn’t content.

“I made it back and I made it to the national tournament,” the Peacock junior said. “I’m like, you know what, that’s not enough. We can do a lot more. We can be an All-American. We can be a national champ, but we have to keep training and keep training hard.”

Williams reached the championship bout with an 8-3 semifinal victory over Nebraska-Kearney’s Josh Portillo. He gave up the tying takedown in the final minute and stared at the clock with 32 seconds left, realizing he had to score. He escaped and added a takedown and two nearfall on Portillo’s last-ditch attempt for points.

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“It felt real good,” Williams said about the semifinal finish. “It was emotional.

“It’s a great feeling. Words can’t even describe it. It’s a totally different feeling. I can’t explain it. It’s overwhelming.”

In his corner, Upper Iowa Coach Heath Grimm bounced with excitement. Grimm, his wife Angela and his two daughters served as a surrogate family for Williams, who was determined to remain in Fayette despite his family being in Florida. He has witnessed each moment of Williams’ comeback.

“Tomorrow’s promised to nobody,” Grimm said. “We’re very grateful and blessed to be here. We have a lot of good people around him and you’re starting to see the fruits of everyone’s labor, including himself.

“It’s a nice culmination of seeing him get his hand raised and a chance to win an NCAA championship.”

Williams didn’t catch his coach’s reaction, but he experienced an emotional moment when he was met with tears and a hug from Angela Grimm.

“Having her cry and being proud of me and him being proud and all of them being proud,” Williams said, “it made me feel a lot better because it’s been so long,”

Portillo places

Josh Portillo dropped to his knees and took a few moments of emotional reflection on his recent journey. One that started at South Dakota State and ended on the awards stand for Nebraska-Kearney. Portillo transferred between semesters, becoming the Lopers’ 125-pound starter and placing fifth.

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“I came in here wanting a national title, of course,” Portillo said. “It still kind of bites after the tough semifinal loss. I’m also extremely happy.”

Portillo said he experienced a “dark time” at SDSU and considered leaving wrestling altogether. He left at the start of November and began to visit schools again. He settled on Kearney, a place he said he should have been from the start.

“I really love where I’m at now,” Portillo said. “I was thanking my coaches because they took me in and always believed in me.”

This has been a special month for the Portillo family. Twin brother, Justin, who also transferred from SDSU, was an NAIA All-American for Grand View last week in Des Moines.

“It’s awesome but he one-upped me twice,” Josh Portillo said. “He was the first All-American in our family and he got third. I got fifth. He is a couple rungs above me but it will give me motivation to catch him.”

The brother duo combined for five state titles at Clarion-Goldfield-Dows with Josh winning three.

Johnston, Malcom medal

Former Iowa preps Zach Johnston and Matt Malcom earned All-American honors Saturday.

Malcom, a state champion at Glenwood, finish fourth at 157 for Nebraska-Kearney. Johnston, an ADM state champ and three-time finalist, placed seventh at 174 for Minnesota State.

l Comments: (319) 368-8679; kj.pilcher@thegazette.com

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