“Don’t let a missing limb define who you are.” This is Nick Ackerman’s mantra, and he tells it to his patients at America Prosthetics and Orthotics (APO) regularly. But, what if you’re missing two limbs? Still, it’s never an excuse.
Nick, a native of Colfax, Iowa, was a NCAA Division III Iowa state wrestling champion during his career at Simpson College, and no, he didn’t wrestle against others with disabilities, he wrestled against people with two arms and two legs, and continuously proved that heart wins over circumstance 100-percent of the time.
He lost his legs when at 18-months-old he contracted bacterial meningitis that resulted in both of his legs being amputated below the knee. “My parents were young and now they have this child that contracted meningitis and lost both his legs…they struggled, I guess, but they did well with it. Raising a son that is different, but trying not to make him different,” Nick says. “I attribute a lot of my success in anything that I’ve done to my folks. They expected hard work and a good outcome. Being a father myself I can’t imagine my child getting as sick as I was at that age and the hopeless feeling of ‘How can we help’?”
Nick’s parents raised him to believe in the core difference makers in life: hard work, dedication, and never feeling sorry for yourself. It’s the reason why Nick believed he could become a successful athlete as he dabbled in every sport – that is, until he found wrestling. “Wrestling is an interesting sport. An individual sport with a team aspect, so you rely on folks around you for support, but they don’t rely on you to win and you don’t rely on them. In my opinion, there’s a lot of excuses in the world, and in a team sport it’s very easy to say ‘We didn’t win the football game because one of our players is missing his legs and he’s slower’. Wrestling gives you the opportunity to step up and fend for yourself,” Nick explains.
Some of Nick’s fondest memories of competitions took place in high school. During the first-round of the state tournament he was facing the number one wrestler in Iowa. “I break my arm in the first period and I go on to beat him 8-2.” Four years later, in the Division III National Tournament, Nick would face an undefeated opponent who had gone 63-0 throughout the college season. “I’m not necessarily a nobody during that game, but realistically I wasn’t supposed to be in that match. Myself, my coaches and my teammates believed I was going to be there and winning that match was obviously pretty exciting.”
Since the curtains have closed on college and a wrestling career Nick is now the Director of Prosthetics at APO. His position (leaving out all of the paperwork) allows him to give back and catalyze the healing process for other amputees, though that wasn’t his original plan. “I went to school and got a degree in Environmental Biology. I expected to be a Fish & Game Warden like my older brother is, and that’s what we were gonna do. After you win something like that [the National Tournament] there are a lot of people that think it’s pretty cool how you overcome a lot of adversity. So, I got a phone call from a guy who saw a newspaper article in USA Today about me and he told me he had lost his legs. We talked for a couple hours on the phone and I thought ‘We gotta make this kid’s legs.’ Not necessarily literally, but in a figurative sense. There are people out there that need to see that this [being an amputee] isn’t a big deal. Yeah, it’s different, but you’re going to go back to whatever your ‘normal’ is,” Nick said.
Nick’s an inspiration just by being who he is and participating in community events that encourage kids to be physically active, but what he does every day is truly remarkable. “The patient care side…when you literally give someone the opportunity or ability to walk again cannot be taken lightly. I’ve been on the other side of that patient care relationship before and that’s something that my mentors and doctors have given me growing up; the opportunity to be ‘normal’.”
“I don’t have an inspirational thing on my wall in my office or anything, no poster with an eagle or anything else that you need to be inspired. I have a post-it note that has the sticky part torn off and it’s up under the counter of my light. You can only see it if you’re sitting in this [my] chair at a certain angle, and it says ‘Don’t complain, work harder’. It’s what I’ve been taught my entire life to do.”
Check out the Today Show special on Nick and his biggest fan, Evan, an amputee that wants to be a wrestler:
An Inspire52 original piece. Special thanks to Nick for his time and allowing us to share his story with the world.