September 21, 2018
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‘Just take it second-by-second’: Maine HS wrestler grapples with genetic disorder

Beth Howell Gladden | RSU 35
Beth Howell Gladden | RSU 35
Members of the Marshwood High School wrestling team gather in a circle in this Regional School Unit 35 photo.
By Pat McDonald, Journal Tribune

Wrestling is a sport that demands a lot from an athlete. You have to go through rigorous practices in the wrestling room, put in plenty of time on your cardio, while also keeping a sometimes very strict diet in order to make weight.

The sport is simply a grind that some people embrace and others can’t handle.

Now imagine going through everything a high school wrestler has to deal with in order to just get on the mat, and add a diagnosis of Cystic Fibrosis to the mix.

For most high school students, that combination would be impossible to handle — not for freshman Sean Moriarty of Marshwood High School in South Berwick.

The young wrestler was diagnosed with the disease, which is a progressive, genetic disorder that causes persistent lung infections and limits the ability to breathe over time, at just 4 1/2 months old and has battled the disease every day of his life.

“He was sick, sick, sick when he was little. They couldn’t figure out what it was. They thought it was whooping cough or something like that,” said Moriarty’s mom, Kathi.

Moriarty was eventually checked out by a specialist, who quickly recognized the signs of Cystic Fibrosis.

“When we got up there, we were there for about five minutes and the doctor said, ‘well, he has CF,’” said Kathi, who was understandably shocked. “That was probably the furthest thing from my mind.”

He was sent across the street to Maine Medical Center to get the tests that could confirm the doctor’s suspicion. Once it was confirmed, he would be admitted to treat malnutrition and tragedy nearly struck.

“We almost lost him that night … once they knew what was wrong they started giving him enzymes and meds — and I had to sleep with him sitting up day one because he couldn’t breathe when he was laying down,” said Kathi.

“I’m sitting in the rocking chair with him at about midnight and the soft part of his head started swelling. I called the nurse and said, ‘what’s going on here?’ She said, ‘let me call somebody.’ She went and got somebody, they came and looked and said, ‘ahhh, I’ve got to call somebody.’ The next one came in and said, ‘I’m calling the doctor. So he came in and said, ‘I think I know what’s wrong but I don’t know for sure. We’re going to have to do a spinal tap.’”

What came next is the worst nightmare of every parent.

“They started draining fluid, took him downstairs to do a scan of the brain and that was when he stopped breathing,” Kathi said. “It was just the (technician) and I, he was all strapped down, all the sudden the alarms started going off and we looked at each other. We ripped that off and got him breathing again.”

After that initial scare, Sean was able to rebound and improved day after day, according to Kathi.

“Things started getting better, he was feeling better but it was Christmas, so he spent his first Christmas in the hospital up at Maine Med. We got home, started doing the therapy and his meds and we’ve been doing that ever since.”

‘I can handle it’

Most high school kids have to deal with a lot during their average day, but it’s nothing compared to what Sean has to do every day of his life.

“He takes about 30 pills a day. He does chest therapy twice a day at least, except when he gets a cold or something then he bumps it up to three or four or sometimes five times a day,” said Kathi, who explained how uncomfortable the “chest therapy” can be. “It’s a machine that he gets hooked up to. It has these tubes that come out into a vest. It blows up and then it beats the hell out of him. What it does is it moves the mucus around so that he can cough it out, so it’s very confining, not fun.”

Sean admitted how difficult it can be, but was also quick to say it wouldn’t bring him down.

“I mean it’s pretty hard, but I can handle it,” he said. “I just take it bit-by-bit every day. I mean school’s first, then wrestling and then all my meds and everything. Just take it second-by-second.”

Marshwood coach Matt Rix has been amazed with the way he has handled everything.

“I’ve seen him go through so much over the years and to just get through a six-minute match to be where he’s at is amazing,” said Rix, who believes most people wouldn’t be able to handle it. “I’d like anyone to just breathe the capacity that he has to for a day, let alone do what he does here. It’s just pretty amazing.”

In order to get ready for the high school wrestling season, Moriarty checked into the hospital in order to get his body prepared for the long season.

“We were in the hospital two weeks before wrestling season started just to clean him out,” said Kathi.

Like a true wrestler, the one thing Moriarty was worried about during his hospital stay was keeping his weight down.

“I was kind of nervous. I was really overweight, but I knew all I had to do was come into the room and I could easily get it off,” said Sean.

Leading by example

Rix is a Hall of Fame coach and has produced state champions — both individuals and teams — that he could use as an example for his current team. But he also has a kid in the room that he can point to as a role model.

“The fact that he’s up in the front every time we run and the conditioning that he’s at, we can remind the (other) kids what he’s dealing with and the (lung) capacity. He’s a great example for everyone in our room. We have no idea what his daily regimen is like,” said Rix, who got a little choked up when talking about his freshman standout. “You know we can lose Sean at any time … I would hate to see that happen.”

The bond between Moriarty and Rix has been formed over several years, but this year would be the first time he would be actually officially coaching Sean.

“I’ve known Sean since he was a baby. He calls me uncle Matt, so that was the first bridge we had to cross, ‘when we come in the (wrestling) room, it’s coach now,’” said Rix with a smile.

Rix was thrilled to have the opportunity to finally have Moriarty in his wrestling room.

“Sean has put the time in. I was really excited about the fact that I was finally going to get a chance to do some coaching with him,” Rix said.

Despite having such a close relationship with Moriarty and knowing what he is dealing with, the Marshwood coach has afforded the freshman no special treatment.

“I treat him like anybody else. I don’t cut him any slack,” said Rix. “He was a pound over (before last weekend’s Spartan tournament) and his eyes were tearing up and I was like, ‘what are you going to cry it off?’ But even if I was mad, I wanted to give him a hug and tell him everything was going to be OK.”

Plenty of support

One thing that has helped Moriarty is the support he has received from his coaches, family, friends, teammates and the entire Maine wrestling community.

“They’re great,” said Kathi on the wrestling community. “It’s really awesome. It’s funny because he was wrestling for years before anyone knew he had CF. He didn’t want anybody to treat him different or not want to wrestle him.”

It wasn’t until the youth New England tournament in Portland a few years ago that most people found out about Moriarty’s battle with CF.

“It was a couple years ago he was in the hospital during (youth) New Englands, so he wasn’t able to do it. Then Maine wrestling did an article on him, and of course there were tons of coaches and kids and they were all going either, ‘I know that kid or I wrestled that kid and he’s wicked tough.’ Now everybody knows and it’s no big deal,” said Kathi.

“Everybody started freaking out like, ‘where’s Sean?’ Only my team knew I was in the hospital and no one else did,” added Sean. “After the New Englands ended, Maine Med is right next to the Civic Center so everybody just started flooding in.”

Moriarty gives plenty of credit to his coaches and teammates for sticking by him during his freshman campaign.

“They’re great. Coach Rix is the best coach I’ve ever had,” said Moriarty. “All my teammates, when I’m down at practice they always pick me up and push me. They will be down the next day and I will do it to them, too.”

Two people who have always been in his corner have of course been his parents, Kathi and Mark, who is a former Marshwood assistant and current youth wrestling coach.

“My dad said he will do whatever it takes to get me to where I want to go … where I want to go is pretty far,” said Sean.

And for his mom? Well, she is definitely a “vocal” supporter, according to Sean.

“Everybody knows her as a screamer … you can always hear her off in the distance somewhere, no matter where she is,” said Sean with a laugh.

Another person who has been with him throughout the last few years has been local photographer Jason Gendron, who got to know the Moriarty family through wrestling.

“He’s great. He’s always there before my matches getting me ready, trying to get me into the zone. He’s really just a great guy, just to be around him and everything, I go fishing with him a lot, I do a lot of other stuff with him,” said Sean of Gendron. “The first time I ever met him, I knew something clicked with him, so we’ve been friends ever since. He visits a lot. He tries to make as much time for me as he can. It’s greatly appreciated.”

Kathi has witnessed the bond between Jason and Sean, especially during Sean’s long stays in the hospital.

“Jason spends most of the time in there with us,” said Kathi. “Sean doesn’t let him go. It will start to get late and Jason’s like, ‘I’ve got to go,’ and Sean’s like ‘no, you can’t leave me yet.’ And Jason stays longer. He’s just awesome.”

‘I’m looking for titles’

Moriarty has quickly proven himself on the high school stage as he placed second at the Atlantic Invitational in Wells a few weeks ago and then followed that up with an impressive run to a championship at last weekend’s Spartan tournament in Sanford.

Last weekend’s triumph at Sanford was especially impressive as Moriarty had to take down a wrestler from powerhouse Timberlane — and it took overtime to get the job done.

“When I knew it was going into overtime, I was tired and I was nervous, but once that whistle blew all that just (went away) and I just zoned in. So many things started going through my mind like, ‘I could actually win this,’” said Moriarty.

The standout ran over and gave Rix a big hug after getting his hand raised, which was a special moment for both the wrestler and his coach.

“It still hadn’t sunk in yet,” said Moriarty on what he was thinking after the match. “It’s just sinking in right now … I never thought this would have happened, especially at this tournament.”

Rix was impressed with how Moriarty handled the finals match, which saw the freshman give up a late takedown that tied the score and sent the match to overtime.

“You saw him with the frustration and the fact that he could pick himself up that quick … the composure that he had, he regained himself really quick and realized he was still in the match. I think he thought he lost it, I don’t think he realized he was going to overtime,” said Rix.

The longtime coach believes Moriarty’s fight with CF has made situations like the Spartan final much easier.

“With everything he’s been through, I think that this is no big deal … you know, ‘I’ve been through it all, I’ve done it all,’ and I think wrestling has been such a great sport for him,” said Rix.

Moriarty feels he has learned a lot through the first half of his freshman season.

“Every time, either a win or loss, you always come out with something,” said Moriarty, who credits Rix with helping him use each match as a learning experience. “Coach comes out with something, if you don’t know what you messed up on, he does. He’ll find something for you to work on for the week.”

Both Moriarty and Rix have lofty goals for his freshman campaign.

“A legitimate state medal is there. I tell you what, if he goes out and wrestles like that, that’s what he needs to do,” said Rix after the Spartan finals. “Hopefully he stays healthy and we get him through the state tournament.”

The freshman is looking for more gold as the year goes on, but he is also focused on getting better every time he steps on the mat.

“I’m looking for titles … but I’m just trying to make the best of my freshman year and then come back my sophomore year stronger,” said Moriarty.

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