NORMAL — Luke Gentry loves wrestling — a lot.
How else do you explain why the Normal West High School senior has come back from three major injuries the past two years to win 14 of his 15 matches this season, including the 170-pound title at the Glenbrook South Invitational?
"I like the individual aspect as well as the combat aspect of it," says Gentry, whose previous best tournament finish was fifth.
Gentry had interactions with the medical profession in grade school with hand and knee injuries suffered during seven years of taekwondo, which he did when not wrestling or playing football, baseball, basketball or soccer.
After going 10-26 as a freshman wrestler, Gentry took a back injury into his sophomore season. Coaches limited his workouts to keep him in the lineup, but his condition worsened during an 16-10 campaign that ended when doctors discovered he had a fractured vertebrae.
On a 10-point scale of pain, Gentry estimates he reached nine.
"I'd get home and fall out of my truck and lay on the ground for a couple seconds," he remembers. "I would hobble inside and lay on the floor. I could feel my back spasm. It took my breath away."
Gentry wore a back brace for four months.
"That thing was sweaty," he recalls. "I wasn't allowed to run, jump, do anything. I had to be super mellow and that was really boring."
As Gentry prepared for his junior year, he tore the labrum in his right shoulder, which required surgery and five months of rehabilitation, wiping out his entire season. In his third club match last spring, he tore the labrum in his left shoulder, which again meant surgery and five months of rehab.
"The third (injury) was the defining moment," he said. "I had to sit down and talk with my coaches and family because I was really down about whether I wanted to continue wrestling.
"I was really discouraged because I wasn't getting much return from what I was putting into the sport."
After much contemplation and prayer, Gentry thought, "I'll give it one more go."
Coach Adam Richards is thrilled he has.
"I think a lot of other kids would have said, 'This isn't worth it,'" Richards said. "To be as successful as he's been is blowing my mind.
"He's very well-liked and respected on our team. This kid is one of the highest character kids I've ever coached in 20 years."
After each injury, Gentry has trusted that the rehabbed body part could withstand the rigors of wrestling.
"It's a real slow process," he says. "It's slowly picking up the pace little by little."
After the last injury, Gentry returned to gentle training by going against a 113-pounder in practice. Even though he feels close to 100 percent now, he's on guard during matches.
"If I get in a position that could potentially hurt it, I'd rather give up the points than tear my labrum again and miss the rest of my senior year," he says.
Gentry credits taekwondo for strengthening his will.
"I think that really instilled discipline and perseverance into me and I think I carried that over through middle school and into high school," he said.
He also thanks his parents, teammates and coaches for encouraging him to return.
"I'm a pretty optimistic guy, I guess, and didn't get down on myself too much," he adds.
As for the rest of this season, the honor student knows the next match could be his last. If it is, he says the world won't end. Still, he dreams of winning a state medal. His coach, for one, isn't betting against him.
"I think his perspective has changed," Richards said. "I think he realizes what he has in the sport. It's a sport that he loves and he has an opportunity to do it."
Wrestling may yet love Gentry as much as he loves it, or maybe it does already.
Returning from three injuries and a combined 14 months of rehab suggest he's been prepared for challenges few others could overcome, a victory by any measure.