Sammy Sasso’s entire Ohio State career has been spent competing for and winning championships.
He won his first Big Ten Championship in 2021 as a redshirt sophomore and followed it up with another Big Ten title in 2023. He’s a four-time All-American and two-time NCAA runner-up.
If he’s going to return to competition in the sport he loves after being shot on Aug. 18 – an incident that nearly left him paraplegic – Sasso doesn’t want it to be at anything short of that level.
“If I’m not competing at the level that I was before, then I won’t come back,” Sasso said. “I had a great career. I never lost a Big Ten dual meet. I wouldn’t come back a lesser version of myself and tarnish my record or just what I’ve done in the sport. If I’m not competing at what I was or better, then it’s not happening.”
It’s a near-miracle that Sasso can wrestle at all.
He sustained what his family called “severe nerve damage” in the shooting near Ohio State’s campus. Surgery was required to reconstruct his colon and Sasso underwent extensive physical therapy just to learn to walk again.
“It’s a little annoying (not being at the level you once were), but when you look at the grand scheme of things, (one) centimeter up or (one) centimeter down, I’m going in a wheelchair,” Sasso said.
Six months after his hospitalization, however, Sasso is back to “rolling around” on the mat with teammates.
“We didn’t know what to expect. The guy has had a major surgery on his intestines, he’s had a surgery on his back,” Ohio State wrestling coach Tom Ryan said. “The fact that he’s wrestling is not really a surprise because of his will and his love to wrestle. I know that he told the surgeon, ‘If I’ve gotta wrestle on one leg, I’m gonna wrestle again.’ There’s just a determination there that nothing will get in the way of.”
Sasso stated that he’s “good at wrestling still” and practicing with teammates from some lighter weight classes, but he’s still a long way from national title caliber.
“It’s cool right now. It’s cool," Sasso said. "I’ll enjoy my time not competing, because if I do come back to the mat, this is probably the longest time I’ve had to just spend more time with my lady, spend more time with my family, look out for these guys, coach these guys.”
“When you look at the grand scheme of things, (one) centimeter up or (one) centimeter down, I’m going in a wheelchair.”– Sammy Sasso on why it's not that frustrating to not be wrestling at the level he was before
College wrestlers competing at the top level with severe physical handicaps is not unheard of. The most famous example, one which Ryan alluded to on Friday, is Arizona State’s Anthony Robles.
Robles was born with only one leg for unknown reasons. He started wrestling in eighth grade and eventually won two Arizona high school state championships, earning him an opportunity to wrestle for the Sun Devils. In 2011, he won the NCAA championship at 125 pounds.
“It’s an amazing thing to watch someone take something that would be considered a big negative, an ailment, and make a positive,” Ryan said. “That’s only through years and years and hours and hours of figuring out how you’ve gotta move to make that leg not a disability. Sammy has a deep enough love for what he’s doing to make that happen.”
Sasso said that he doesn’t want to have to reinvent the wheel and learn to wrestle the top grapplers at the collegiate level on one leg, however. It’s more about working as hard as he can to rehab as fast as possible and get the limb to where he needs it to be to wrestle the way he's accustomed to.
While his leg still isn’t functioning the way it used to – Ryan said the nerve pathways from Sasso’s brain to his leg are now coated in “honey” where they used to be coated in “grease” – it’s improving day by day.
“Hopefully in six to eight months we’ll see that deficit in my left leg start to go away,” Sasso said. “I’ve been making a lot of improvements. You go back to learning how to walk again to where I’m at now, it’s honestly just been an uphill improvement since the incident. So as long as things keep going that way, I’ve got good hopes to get back on the mat.”
“It’s honestly just been an uphill improvement since the incident. So as long as things keep going that way, I’ve got good hopes to get back on the mat.”– Sammy Sasso on his potential return to competition in 2024
Getting back to the national-title-caliber level that Sasso was once at would begin with winning a starting spot again for Ohio State next year. The Buckeyes have a young, talented group of wrestlers vying for spots up and down their lineup.
The 157-pound weight class, which Sasso was set to wrestle at in 2023-24 after bumping up from 149 pounds, seems to be an opening, with Isaac Wilcox ranked just 29th in the country currently for Ohio State. But Sasso has, of course, lost weight during the rehab process. Second-year stars Nic Bouzakis and Jesse Mendez, ranked No. 11 and No. 3 in their weight classes, occupy 133 and 141 pounds currently.
Redshirt senior Dylan D’Emilio, currently No. 11 at 149 pounds, has another year of eligibility remaining. One or more wrestlers could bump up a class to make way for Sasso if he does return to form.
“If I come back – that’s a big if – probably gonna have to beat somebody for a spot,” Sasso said. “Big if though.”
Whether or not he returns to competition, Sasso is grateful to be in the position he’s made it to after such a traumatic experience.
Sasso will undoubtedly draw a massive reaction from the crowd at the Covelli Center when he's honored as part of Senior Day as Ohio State faces Indiana on Sunday.
“When this whole thing happened, I didn’t know where I would be at,” Sasso said. “So just to be able to have the hope to wrestle again, that’s cool with me. I had a great career. So if God’s got it planned for me that, ‘You’re not gonna wrestle again,’ then I’m OK with that.”