Cooper Warshel enters the District 6 Wrestling Class 2A Tournament, which begins at 10 a.m. Saturday at Altoona Area High School, as the top seed at 145 pounds and is ranked ninth in the state.
Those statements would have been nearly unthinkable a few years ago, but the Richland senior was able to overcome a heart defect that threatened his life as a newborn and progress from an average wrestler to one of the best in the state.
“Whenever I was like 2 weeks old, my parents said I was taking really shallow breaths,” Warshel said.
Initially, doctors didn’t find anything wrong, but the diagnosis didn’t sit well with Warshel’s mother, Kelly, who specializes in internal medicine.
“They said I have a coarctation of the aorta – my aorta wasn’t pumping blood to the rest of my body – and I need to get to Children’s Hospital ASAP,” Cooper said. “So, we went to Children’s Hospital, and I got the surgery. They said if it was like a day later, I would have died. We made it just in time.”
Doctors told Warshel that he wouldn’t be able to play football, lift weights or wrestle in high school, as those sports would put too much stress on his heart. He participated in them as a youngster but never too seriously. When he was cleared to wrestle in seventh grade, his mindset changed.
“Seventh grade was the first year I had like a .500 record,” he recalled. “Eighth grade, I got better. Every year was a little bit more.”
As a freshman at Bishop McCort Catholic, he won 20 matches. The next year he qualified for the state tournament. Last season he won 36 bouts and placed eighth in the state. He’s 10-0 in this pandemic-shortened season.
“When I realized I wanted to be a state champion – probably my sophomore year – I realized I have a big gap to fill,” he said.
“I thought, ‘I can work harder than everyone else, but that’s probably not going to do it. I have to work smarter.’ So, I got a personal trainer. I had to sleep right. I had to have my nutrition perfect. I had to have everything perfect to keep bridging that gap. I couldn’t just do one thing better than everyone. I had to do everything better to bridge that gap between someone like me and (state champion) Gage McClenahan.”
For Richland coach Mike Naglic, the secret to Warshel’s success is no secret at all.
“He just worked hard. He put in the time,” Naglic said. “There’s no magic pill. If you’re willing to do the work to accomplish your goals, you can. Everyone wishes they could do it, but he chose to put in the work. It’s paying off for him.”
Warshel will need to continue to work hard to reach his lofty goals. While he’s favored to win a District 6 title, his Southwest Region includes second-ranked Kenny Duschek of Blackhawk and No. 5 Tyler Cymmerman of Derry Area. The West Super Region tournament, which was added this year to cull the number of state qualifiers who advance to Hershey, could put No. 3 Kaeden Berger of Reynolds and No. 4 Carter Gill of Hickory in Warshel’s path. Only the top four from the super regional advance to the PIAA tournament.
An injury to Richland’s regular 152-pounder late in the season meant that Warshel could have moved up a weight without bumping a teammate from the lineup. Naglic let the decision to Warshel.
“He said ‘I’m staying at ’45. Let’s do it!’ ” Naglic recalled. “I preach to these kids, if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. Make everyone run from you; we don’t run from anybody.”
“I know there are a lot of good kids coming up, and I’m excited,” Warshel said. “I’m very prepared. I feel 145 is a very deep bracket. I have a lot to prove before I leave high school, and I feel this is the best bracket to do it in, for sure.”
For Warshel, who is being recruited by Division I schools, including Pitt, the opportunity to compete against the best is all he’s ever wanted. He’s reminded of that every time he gets a checkup to make sure that his heart is still strong enough for the sport that he loves.
“It’s a nerve-wracking process, going there every year and saying, ‘Can I do wrestling?’ ” he said. “I just went this year and they said that I’m good. But if I wrestle in college, I have to come back every year, do stress tests to make sure the surgery they did on my aorta doesn’t do on itself, because of all of the stress that wrestling puts on my heart.”