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At Iowa girls state wrestling tournament: Heart of a champion
Wrestler Lilly Luft inspired by her brother, and the gift he left after dying
Editor’s note: Lilly Luft, after this story was written, on Friday night went on to win her third straight Iowa High School Girls State Wrestling championship — her first since the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union sanctioned girls wrestling. She won in dominant fashion, with a 9-0 major decision, meaning she gave up just one point the entire tournament.
CORALVILLE — There's not a lot of grace in wrestling.
Given the grind Iowa wrestlers endure in preparation for competition, some coaches say there's no hope in wrestling, either.
But inside Coralville's Xtream Arena this week — as 448 high school girls grappled for their sport's first sanctioned state title — you could find both.
Not necessarily on the mat. Or in the corners. But in the heart of a young Charles City wrestler named Logan.
Logan Luft “ate, slept, and breathed wrestling.” He practiced five nights a week and took his family to tournaments in Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas. One year he gave up pop — “And this kid loved sugar,” his mom, Wendy Luft, said.
When his coach set a 10,000 pullup challenge, “We had to bring the pullup bar with us to every hotel, every family event,” she said. “Everything we did, we had to have that pullup bar.”
In summer 2017 at age 15, headed into his freshman year with plans to start varsity at the 106 weight, Logan had just qualified for Fargo — host of the USA Wrestling Junior and 16U National Championships. It was the Fourth of July, and some friends — after the annual parade — asked him to their grandparents’ acreage on the edge of town, along the Cedar River.
Wendy went home to start the grill for a barbecue they were hosting and got a phone call just as her husband — Lenny Luft, a Charles City police officer — ended his shift.
“It was one of his partners who had gotten the call to come to the accident scene, and he knew it was bad,” she said. “So he had us come straight there and wait for the helicopter to come get him.”
Logan had been a passenger on a friend’s ATV and was thrown off when it took a turn.
They planned to airlift him from the scene, but the sky was unsettled. A storm was brewing and first responders ended up taking him by ambulance to an emergency room.
“I jumped right in the back of the ambulance and, of course, went into mom mode,” Wendy said. “I'm screaming and probably losing control.”
When paramedics removed her, she ran around to the front seat and turned to reach for her boy. “I put my hands on his head, and I just started talking to him at that point, praying over him, just letting him know that I was there,” Wendy said.
Logan eventually was flown to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, and when Wendy and Lenny arrived, they were ushered into a small room.
“A lady came in, grabbed my arm, and said, ‘You need to come with me,’” Wendy said. “They were wheeling him from where they were up to surgery, and they said, ‘I want you to talk to him.’ So I gave him a hug and a kiss and I said, ‘I love you.’ And they took him away.”
Those were her last words to Logan, who died July 5, 2017, from his injuries.
Into the family’s grief came LifeSource, an organ, eye and tissue donation organization.
“They were like, ‘We’re sorry for your loss, but at this point, he can do amazing things for some people,’” Wendy said. “And we were like, ‘Let’s do it. This is what Logan would want to do.”
Like the wrestling family they were, she said, they harnessed their competitive energy.
“I was like, ‘OK, we’re going to save 27 people.’ And they were like, ‘Well, the max you can do is eight,’” she said. “And we were like, ‘Well, we’re going to do nine.’ And they were like, ‘There’s not enough organs to do that.’”
In the end, Logan made five organ donations and 21 other tissue-related gifts.
And every time a doctor would come in with news of a match, “We’d have this huge celebration,” Wendy said. During the four days they kept Logan alive to preserve his organs, the family sat by him, cuddled him and listened to his favorite music — from Johnny Cash to AC/DC.
Logan’s favorite song was Cash’s “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” Wendy said. He had wanted it to be his “walkout song,” played before his wrestling matches.
And although it wasn’t how he imagined, he got that wish.
“When we took him down to surgery,” Wendy said, “The entire hospital staff and our family all lined the hallway and we played his walkout song.”
‘Heart of God’
Six hundred miles south of Charles City a few days later, Denise Henderson’s sister-in-law — a physician — shared with her news that one of her young transplant patients had accepted a heart.
Henderson and her husband, Daniel, had been foster parents for about five years, and her sister-in-law suggested they take in the 7-year-old patient — Ember — who not only needed a new heart, but a new home.
“No, we're good,” Henderson said to the suggestion. “We’ve already adopted three.”
But Ember’s condition deteriorated, given the transplant process’ complexity and her other health conditions — having been born with a single ventricle in her heart.
Months earlier, Ember had gone into heart failure and was admitted to the hospital in October 2016. She spent half a year on the transplant list — until the day of Logan’s death.
She was his match, although the transplant nearly failed during the operation. “She coded four times and was resuscitated,” Daniel Henderson said.
In the months that followed, Ember was in and out of the hospital, still grappling with medical and family needs. And when Denise Henderson’s sister-in-law called again crying, asking them to “come get this kid,” the couple said OK.
They brought her home as foster parents the day after Valentine’s Day 2018, fell in love, and officially adopted her Oct. 9, 2020. Wendy Luft — who connected with the family early on — was at Ember’s adoption and chose her new middle name.
It had to start with an “L” like the Lufts’ other kids: Logan, Landon, and Lilly.
“Liviya,” her mom said was what they chose. “It means heart of God.”
‘Because of him’
Lilly Luft had always been close to her brother. But, unlike him, she did not like wrestling when she first stepped on the mat in third grade.
“It turned out I wasn’t very good,” she said. “I think I won one match the whole year.”
So Lilly shifted her focus to basketball — until Logan died when she was 12.
“We were very close,” she said. “We spent all our time together camping and boating and fishing and hunting.”
So when Lilly’s soon-to-be high school launched a girls’ wrestling team a few years later, she wanted to be on it. “I basically just did it because of him,” she said.
And this time, Lilly was good.
“I definitely knew a few moves already,” she said. “And I was a pretty quick learner.”
As a freshman, she took fourth in the Iowa High School Girls State Wrestling Tournament, before it was a sanctioned event. She went on to win her state brackets as a sophomore and again as a junior — coming into this week’s tournament with a 52-0 record in the last year.
Before, during and after matches, she said, Logan is on her mind.
“It was his dream to become a state champion, and obviously he never got to do that,” she said. “So getting to go through that and kind of pursue his dreams is really cool.”
Acknowledging they’re her dreams now, too, Lilly said, “His next dream was getting to go to Iowa.” In September, she committed to wrestle for the University of Iowa’s new Hawkeye women’s wrestling team — the first of any Power Five conference school.
And although Lilly has won two state championships, she said this year feels different.
It’s the first state tournament since the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union sanctioned girls wrestling. It’s also the first time Ember, now 13, and her parents have been here. They drove up from Kentucky earlier this week — not knowing what to expect.
“I love it,” Ember said, confessing, “I feel nervous when she wrestles. I want her to win. I never want her to lose.”
Heading into the semifinals Friday morning, Lilly not only hadn’t lost, she hadn’t allowed a point against her. And as she raised her hand following another decisive 9-1 win to send her to her third state championship bout, her heart was racing. Her mom’s heart was racing. Her dad’s heart was racing.
And, next to her family in the stands, her brother’s heart was racing, too.
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