Kolton Kersten was a two-time All American wrestler in the 197 lb weight class at Midland University in Fremont Nebraska, but no match he'd ever won could have prepared him for his battle with bacterial meningitis, which he came down with at the end of his junior season.
It all started after contracting mono (for a second time) while completing his student teaching requirements at a local elementary school. At this point in time, Kolton was in-season, ranked #2 in the nation and had hopes of winning a national title in the 2012-2013 season, so you could imagine he wasn't going to let this illness get in his way. Let's be honest, most athletes would share that same mentality... So Kolton continued to push his body to the limits in training and practice. During this time he was also cutting weight, which sometimes meant working out 3 times in a day. In our discussion, Kolton talks about how taxing the weight cutting process is on your body, especially while "recovering" from mono. Kolton ended up suffering with the typical mono symptoms for close to a month before he was officially diagnosed, relying heavily on coffee to get him through each practice.
One day while training with his brother, Kolton told him he didn’t think he would get through this particular workout (could this be gut instinct speaking?). He recalls his brother telling him to "tough it out" and during our interview, he says they both embraced that mentality. This is not an uncommon mindset in athletes, but it can often be a double-edged sword. It was in my case and it turned out to be one for Kolton as well. After this workout, he then began to feel much worse than he had been previously and thought there might be something seriously wrong. Kolton still had weight to lose so he ran on the treadmill, but said he began hallucinating. While driving back from the gym Kolton decided he needed to seek medical attention.
The doctor diagnosed him with mono and sent him home with Tylenol. Kolton then proceeded to vomit all throughout that night and his symptoms kept getting worse. In the morning, Kolton was basically paralyzed with purple rashes all over his body (see below) and one of his roommates then rushed him to the hospital. Kolton was eventually diagnosed with bacterial meningitis, which usually kills you in 24 hours. He was given a 10% chance to live and was put in a coma. Kolton's family and team were told to prepare for his death. During our interview Kolton describes the intense and unescapable pain associated with bacterial meningitis and how at times he wished it would all just end.
Kolton explained that people who contract meningitis generally have compromised immune systems due to either illness or unhealthy lifestyles. The combination of intense training, cutting weight, stress from student teaching and contracting mono turned out to be the perfect storm for Kolton to breathe in the meningitis particles excreted by a carrier (explained HERE) and ultimately contract the deadly disease.
It was a miracle that Kolton survived his fight with meningitis. During our interview he goes into detail about the life-saving and limb-saving procedures he underwent. He also discusses the many setbacks he experienced, including his bout with sepsis, which left him with gaping holes in his arms. Unsure if he would live or be able to keep his limbs, doctors told Kolton he would never be able to wrestle again. Kolton gives credit to an experimental oxygen chamber procedure for saving his limbs. Side note: Based on this interview, previous interviews and my own story, if you are a health professional, please never tell an athlete they will never be able to get back to their sport again while they are at the lowest point of their lives. I believe there is something to be said about hope and what it can do in an athletes' recovery. That being said, Kolton's coach still had hope once Kolton beat death.
"I don't care what these doctors are telling you, I recruited you because you're tough and I want you to be a national champ. You're still alive, we still have a job to finish. I don't care how long it takes to get back on that wrestling mat, we are going to make one last run to be a national champ and we are going to get the job done."
After being in the hospital for two weeks, Kolton lost 65 pounds. He remembers feeling devastated after the first time he looked in the mirror and saw gaping holes in his arms instead of seeing the muscle that he worked so hard to gain. He remembers thinking to himself that no girls were ever going to like him again looking like this. I remember having similar feelings when I looked in the mirror for the first time after leaving the hospital. About 20 minutes after seeing himself in this condition, Kolton's coach, Beau Vest (pictured above) came in his room and said "I don't care what these doctors are telling you, I recruited you because you're tough and I want you to be a national champ. You're still alive, we still have a job to finish. I don't care how long it takes to get back on that wrestling mat, we are going to make one last run to be a national champ and we are going to get the job done." This is the hope and encouragement that every athlete deserves at their lowest moment!
From that point on, Kolton was focused on getting back on the mat, but it took some time to regain the strength and agility he had that made him an All American. During our interview, Kolton takes us through the rehab process which actually started with Theraband exercises in the hospital and eventually just a 5 lb dumbell once he got home. It took him only three weeks to get out of the hospital when doctors told him he'd be there for three months! Kolton talked about how he regained his strength back pretty quickly, but his agility proved to be more difficult to regain. Because of this, Kolton went back to school part time during the 2013-2014 season and helped out the coaching staff while re-learning how to wrestle again. Kolton made a miraculous comeback in the 2014-2015 season where he finished 3rd in the nation and earned his 100th career win. Pretty amazing for anyone, let alone a guy who was read his last rites not once, but twice.
Kolton discusses the closure he felt with his wrestling career because of the success he achieved on the mat in the 2014-2015 season. During his transition to life after sports he has found pleasure in continuing to workout (the giant biceps are way more distracting than the scars, see above); he additionally found pleasures in outdoor activities like hunting and fishing. Kolton also had a calling back to wrestling, but this time as a coach. Believe it or not, in his first coaching gig out of college he had the opportunity to coach another meningitis survivor, Preston Hoebelheinrich. Unlike Kolton, Preston lost both of his lower legs to the disease. See video below. Kolton is now a Graduate Assistant at Midland University, his alma mater, once again under head coach Beau Vest.
Kolton never missed a practice in his whole life and embraced the mentality that "you better be dying if you're going to miss practice." This is why Kolton continued to push himself when his body was telling him to stop. There is something to be said about gut instinct and my hope is that after listening to this episode, athletes will pay more attention to what their body's are telling them. If I had sat out for my headache, I could have fulfilled my dreams of playing college football. However, I didn't listen to my body and now I have to sit out for the rest of my life. Maybe if Kolton rested while recovering from mono, he never would have contracted meningitis. We will never know, but it's great to see Kolton sharing his inspiring story to instill hope in other athletes that they can beat the odds too.