Courier sports writer
For a lucky few, success is commonplace, but for most, it’s the result of a long journey filled with hard work, a series of barely visible gains, frustrating setbacks and a little luck.
The success Karsten Van Velsor has experienced this wrestling season certainly falls in the latter category. Van Velsor, who is ranked ninth in Class 3A and eventually won the 100th match of his career, has endured more than his share of setbacks to get to where he is today. But a multitude of surgeries and a car accident failed to generate enough adversity to stop Van Velsor from achieving success in his favorite sports.
Van Velsor wears a perpetual look of determination while plying his craft on the wrestling mat. No matter how much his opponents wriggle and squirm in desperate attempts to avoid a fall, more often than not, they find their shoulders pinned to the mat by the doggedly persistent Bulldog wrestler. The way in which Van Velsor relentlessly hounds his opponent until he scores a pin serves as a perfect metaphor for his wrestling career. After a couple years dogged by a nagging foot injury, he has finally pinned his injury’s shoulders to the mat, which has enabled him to ascend to even greater heights as a wrestler.
Persistence, not to mention perseverance and a positive attitude, are qualities that have helped Van Velsor recover from a right foot injury he suffered in the summer following his freshman year at Ottumwa High School. It was a tough break for Van Velsor, who was coming off a successful freshman wrestling season where he qualified for the state tournament. The injury happened when the Polaris Ranger Van Velsor was a passenger in flipped over. He suffered tendon, nerve and joint damage in his right foot. University of Iowa Dr. James Nepola tended to his foot, repairing the tendon and soft tissue. After the surgery, Van Velsor was fitted with an external fixator and then a boot, which left him immobile for 18 weeks.
“He had a pin that went all the way through his foot and two screws that went in his shin bone and there was an external frame that tied everything together that prevented the foot from moving,” Mark Van Velsor said.
The unforeseen consequence of this long stint of inactivity was discovered when Karsten began his sophomore wrestling season.
“I had surgeries before my sophomore year to get it [his right foot better],” Van Velsor said, “and then my sophomore year it was just so painful in all my matches.”
“He wrestled half his sophomore season essentially on a broken foot,” Mark Van Velsor, Karsten’s dad, added.
The nagging injury hindered Van Velsor’s wrestling ability, and it could be argued that it cost him a return trip to the state tournament. Once the season ended, Van Velsor sought advice from a foot specialist at the University of Iowa in regard to what he should do about his foot.
“The top part of the joint was scraped so while he was immobile, to fix the tendon and the flesh, a side effect was the bones of the joint fused together,” Mark Van Velsor said.
The solution the foot specialist offered was unwelcome news: he recommended the joint be fused together.
“He said he was 90 percent sure that joint needed to be fused,” Mark said.
This type of surgery hindered Van Velsor’s wrestling ability by limiting the mobility in his foot, Mark said.
“It would have taken him out of wrestling,” he said. “He probably could have participated, but he wouldn’t have excelled at the level he was accustomed to.”
Not satisfied with the recommendation, Mark Van Velsor sought alternative options elsewhere. His sister, Toni Clark, a a nurse who works for an orthopedic specialist in Texas, advised him to find a doctor that works with professional athletes. Mark dived headfirst into the task, scrolling the Internet for sports doctors who might be willing to take a look at Karsten’s foot.
He eventually came across the name Thomas Clanton, a semi-retired doctor who had treated high-profile athletes like NBA player Yao Ming and NCAA Hall of Famer Eddie George — he also was the Houston Rockets’ team physician for a time. After he made contact with Clanton’s staff, Mark was told it would be at least year before Karsten could see the doctor.
“I gave them a hard-luck story and they told us to bring him out and see what we could do for him,” Mark said.
“I was really excited,” Karsten said. “I’m glad my dad researched and found him.”
Mark sent X-rays and MRI’s of his son’s foot problems to Clanton before his son made the trip, but the good doctor offered him no guarantees — he would do what he could.
“There wasn’t much optimism at the time,” Mark said.
Fortunately, the surgery turned out to be a huge success.
“They removed the bone where the joint grew together;” Mark said, “then they took some stem cells from his hip and injected them into that joint.”
Mark said when the stem cells get injected into a joint where the cartilage used to be, those cells eventually grow into cartilage, although the quality is a few notches below the original cartilage. Clanton also removed the scar tissue that had grown around the tendons, he said.
The surgery forced Karsten to endure another six weeks of inactivity. As a result of this unwelcome downtime, he entered his junior wrestling season in less than pristine condition.
“The first part of the season I wasn’t in shape,” Karsten said, “but by the end of the season I was 100 percent.”
Throughout the whole ordeal, Karsten tried to keep his spirits up.
“I just tried to stay positive the whole time,” Karsten said, “I tried to keep doing stuff. The only bad part was not being able to do anything. ... Just wanting to wrestle and I still couldn’t walk yet.”
Despite his condition-based problems, Karsten still ended up boasting a 29-12 record. Now, with the injury behind him, the wrestler by nature, lets his matches do the talking for him, is performing great feats on the mat his senior season — his record currently sits at 22-2 and he’s accumulated an abundance of pinfall victories. Last Saturday was particularly special for Karsten, as he won his 100th match at Ottumwa’s home invitational. Not bad for a guy who had to wrestle his entire sophomore year with an injured right foot.
Ironically, his injury, and the lessons he’s learned from the injury, have metamorphosed from an albatross into an asset.
“He’s become more focused and much more determined,” Mark said. “He’s really a no-nonsense guy because he was already that way, but he even went further.”