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Pennsylvania wrestler fights off physical limitation, thrives on the mat

Pat Huggins
Lebanon Daily News
Cedar Crest wrestling coach Chris Voshell instructs Bailey Pennypacker, left, and a teammate during a recent practice. (Pat Huggins/Lebanon Daily News via AP)

LEBANON, Pa. — With its significant physical and mental challenges, wrestling is not a sport for the faint-hearted.

Nor, it would seem, is wrestling a sport for someone who stands just 4 feet, 5 inches tall and won't get much bigger because of dwarfism, a condition that limits the growth of a person.

But wrestling is very much in Bailey Pennypacker's wheelhouse. Despite his obvious physical challenges, Pennypacker, a junior 113-pounder, is a key member of the Cedar Crest wrestling team.

And he's not just an oh-isn't-that-nice member of the team, he's a legit competitor, and a team captain capable of tossing around an opponent just as someone of regular size might do.

Of course, it isn't easy for him. But then again, wrestling isn't supposed to be easy.

"It is challenging, because of how tall and long everyone is," Pennypacker said after practice on Thursday. "But you just gotta get over that, figures out your own moves and figure out what works for you."

"Oh, it's a blast," Cedar Crest coach Chris Voshell said of what it's like to coach Pennypacker. "I love it. He's got a great energy. I mean, he's a competitor."

Pennypacker joined the team as a freshman at the urging of a teammate and, though there were some times when doubt crept into his thoughts and he wondered if he had the right stuff to be on the mats every day, it turned out to be the best decision of his young life.

Prior to becoming a wrestler, he had never competed in organized athletics, in part because of family fears that he wouldn't get a chance to play and would be relegated to the bench.

Despite being born with dwarfism, a condition that prevents him from ever growing taller than 4 feet, 8 inches, Cedar Crest junior Bailey Pennypacker is a key member of the school's wrestling team. (Pat Huggins/Lebanon Daily News via AP)

"I got into the sport because a wrestler kept bugging me every day (to try it)," he said. "And I came out and I liked it."

In part, because his teammates and coaches didn't treat him differently because of his size. He worked as hard as they did and cared as much as they did, so he was one of them, not an oddity to be ridiculed but a teammate to be embraced.

"The people," Pennypacker said of why he stayed with the sport.

And the people are quite glad he didn't give up on wrestling. Including Voshell,a veteran coach, who has thrived on the challenge of coaching someone with Pennypacker's physical challenges and has been so impressed with his commitment that he named him one of the team's captains this season.

"I've never coached (someone with dwarfism) before. I don't know what works for someone with those challenges," he said. "So him and I have to talk about what he feels comfortable with, see what works, what doesn't work. Actually, I've seen a huge improvement this year. He's starting to get it, starting to see it. And that progression happens with every wrestler, but with him it's a little different because he's got a whole other hurdle to overcome. It's been a learning experience for both of us.

"Our team has been extremely supportive. We're a dysfunctional family, but it's a lot of fun. Inside the (wrestling) room we pick on each other constantly, it's a good time. Outside the room, on the mat when we're competing, everyone is fighting and pulling for the other guy. And he's no different."

Among the highlights of Pennypacker's season to date was an 8th place finish at the Jim Thorpe Invitational.

"He had two really good wins earlier (this season)," Voshell said. "And he was 8th at Jim Thorpe. That's a big accomplishment for any wrestler."

Perhaps Pennypacker's biggest accomplishment has been earning the role of captain without any of his teammates batting an eye.

"Everybody trusts me," he said. "No one looks down on me because I'm smaller. They just all believe."

Pennypacker has, though, raised a few eyebrows from his opponents. But not in a bad way.

"There was one guy at Jim Thorpe who said, 'I didn't expect you to go that hard,'" he said.

"You can see it in a lot of guys' faces, 'Oh my, I didn't think he was that strong,'" Voshell said of reactions he's seen.

Voshell's had some interesting reactions of his own. He's coached state champions in his career. but watching Pennypacker perform has been as exciting for him as any gold medals he's seen draped around his wrestler's necks.

"When he wins, when he wrestles, he gets me so excited," he said. "This is my 25th year in coaching and I get so revved up."

For his part, Pennypacker can't imagine not wrestling. And he doesn't want to imagine it, either.

"It would be terrible," he said.

And life in general wouldn't be as good. Not only is his body in better physical condition than it would be if he didn't wrestle, so too is his psyche. When asked if he's ever been ridiculed for being small, he says, "In wrestling, no. Never."

Nor has he ever been pitied within the wrestling environment.

"That's one of our mainstay phrases. 'No one is going to feel sorry for you,'" Voshell said. "I've never felt sorry for him one bit. He's here and he's part of our family. Every man on this team, coaching staff included, would fight and die for him."