Wrestling: Wilde Lake's Drazenovic gets one last chance after open heart surgery

In sports, it is often said that to succeed one must possess a lot of heart. It also is often said that a wrestling match is the most difficult six minutes in sports. Wilde Lake senior Ryan Drazenovic knows just what it means to have heart on the wrestling mat.

The now-strapping 152-pounder was born with a congenital heart defect and three days after Maxine Drazenovic gave birth to Ryan in a New York hospital, his chest and heart were opened up for an arterial switch, or transposition of the great arteries. In layman's terms, Drazenovic's aorta and pulmonary artery were attached wrong and needed to be fixed.

One year later, he had a second open-heart surgery, this time to expand one of the arteries circulating blood throughout his body. He was given a clean bill of health with the caveat that when he became an adult, another open-heart procedure would likely be necessary.

But as a child, that was the last thing on Ryan Drazenovic's mind.

He played baseball growing up, but craving more aggressiveness and contact, he took up karate.

"He loves sports and he doesn't give up," said Maxine, an ESOL teacher at Longfellow Elementary School. "He's as stubborn as a mule."

As an eighth-grader, Drazenovic transitioned to wrestling, competing with the Howard County Vipers wrestling program's travel team. That experience helped him make the varsity team when he got to Wilde Lake and in 2009 he won about 10 matches, more than respectable for a freshman competing at the relatively large weight of 140 pounds.

"My parents supported me and I just wanted to try it out," said Drazenovic, who developed a knack for late rallies. "I had so many matches where I was down going into the second or third period and I would just catch a kid for the pin."

Drazenovic found more success as a sophomore, when he won 19 matches and placed eighth at the county tournament, helping his team to a 15-win season.

He seemed poised to break through as a junior, but then came a reminder of just how lucky he had been to compete the way he had for the past 15 years. During a check-up, doctors decided that one of his valves needed to be replaced.

"He's like the size of an adult, he's growing so fast," Maxine Drazenovic said of her 6-foot-1 son. "But his (heart) valve wasn't growing."

Or as he put it, "a valve was too small, so they cut it out and put a pig valve in, and now my blood flows better."

Drazenovic's surgery was successfully performed in mid-December at Johns Hopkins and he was able to return to school after winter break. And while a sudden return to the mat was out of the question, he couldn't bear to be away from the gym. So there Drazenovic was, at practice and competitions, rooting for and even helping to coach his teammates.

The surgery "was kind of stressful. I think it affected my grades a little bit but not enough to drop my (grade-point average)," said Drazenovic, an honor roll AP student who would like to study accounting or pharmaceutical chemistry in college. "(But) I was happy that I was able to sit on the bench and help the team."

Drazenovic said the Wilde Lake community was supportive during his recovery, but teammates Zathy Ndiang, a 2010 state champion, Alvin Harris, a two-time county champ, and Adam Satterfield, a 2010 junior varsity county champion, were especially helpful in making him still feel like part of the team.

And while being a good teammate gave him some fulfillment, nothing could replace the experience of head-to-head competition out on the mat. So when doctors cleared him to return to the mat two weeks before the 2011 county tournament, Drazenovic didn't hesitate.

"I was at the point where I really needed to wrestle," said Drazenovic, who takes blood pressure medicine, but needs few precautions otherwise. "I enjoy wrestling so much, and when the doctors told me it was something that I could do but didn't have to do, I was definitely going to do it."

While Drazenovic was raring to go, two weeks was little time to get him back to the level of his competitors, who had been training and competing all winter.

Competing at 160 pounds, Drazenovic was pinned twice in the second period, but by virtue of two wins by forfeit, he placed seventh, a personal best.

"(My husband) Mike and I worry all the time. It's very scary but (sports) is something he's done all of his life," Maxine Drazenovic said. "The heart healed right away, but the broken chest bone has to heal like a broken bone … watching (Ryan wrestle in the county tournament) was a nightmare."

With the 2011 season behind him, Drazenovic immediately went to work preparing for his senior season. He joined the Wilde Lake lacrosse team that spring to get active again and rebuild his cardiovascular strength, and trained with the Cary Kolat wrestling camp in the offseason to hone his technique.

So far this season, Drazenovic has found the recovery process to be frustrating at times.

He improved to 9-7 with his third place finish at the seven-team Edgewood Invitational Jan. 14, but it was a tournament that he felt he should have won.

"I'm really out of shape right now … I've been wrestling and practicing all offseason, but it's a lot different when you're actually wrestling during the season," he said. "The doctors said that it could take me awhile to get back to where I was, which is what I'm most worried about. Right now I'd say that I'm at about 70 or 80 percent. I get tired more at the end of matches."

Drazenovic still has almost a month to prepare for the county tournament, Feb. 17 and 18 at Oakland Mills, and he seems to be gradually building back to where he was as a sophomore.

"He seems to be getting stronger every week," Maxine Drazenovic said. "But I told him, win or lose, just the fact that you came back is amazing to people. Not that many people come back to sports from injuries and (former assistanct coach Butch Keaser) said that wrestling is the hardest sport to come back to."

Drazenovic has high hopes of doing well at the county tournament and then qualifying for the region and state tournaments for the first time, but he is also wise enough to realize how lucky he is to have the opportunity to do so.

"It makes me really happy to be able to go back out onto the mat when they call my name," he said.

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