SCARBOROUGH — Wrestling is a good fit for Sam Leishman because the Scarborough High senior has been grappling with hardship all his life.

“Wrestling is kind of like life,” he said. “You go through your hardest objects. You have your ups and downs, and you just do the best you can to get better the next day and improve.”

Sam, 17, has one leg. His left leg was amputated at his upper thigh when he was less than a month old. Whether on crutches, on a prosthetic leg, or even when he uses just one leg when on the wrestling mat, Sam has learned how to get around.

“I really don’t let anything physical-wise stop me,” he said.

The invisible handicaps have been tougher to maneuver.

IN SEARCH OF SOMETHING PERMANENT

Born March 26, 2000, in Ethiopia, Sam was abandoned by his mother soon after doctors told her and his father that there was nothing they could do about the infection that had spread through their first-born son’s leg.

Sam knows that the amputation was done by “somebody in the village,” and that medications kept him from dying. When he was 6, his father put him in an Ethiopian orphanage where he lived for more than a year.

“You have your ups and downs, and you just do the best you can to get better the next day and improve,” says Sam Leishman. Staff photos by Ben McCanna

He was adopted by a family in Colorado. That arrangement lasted for about three years but was never a good fit.

“I had a lot of anger issues then, so the family just didn’t feel I belonged there,” Sam said.

He then fell under the care of the Colorado foster care system, moving between foster homes and group homes. He went to a different high school in a different city each year while his caseworker kept looking for an adoptive family.

With each move came another new group of classmates and teachers who had to decide whether they wanted to get to know the boy with one leg and no parents.

“I’ve just been moving since I was a kid from one place to another,” he said. “I want people to get to know me. That’s pretty much it. I don’t want people to immediately judge me for the way I look and stuff.”

As a freshman at Aurora Central High School in Aurora, Colorado, Sam was inspired to take up wrestling when he learned about Anthony Robles, a one-legged wrestler who won the 2011 NCAA Division I 125-pound championship as a senior at Arizona State University.

In his sophomore year, while attending a small Christian school in Denver, Sam wrestled for a cooperative team. Last season, he was in Colorado Springs, attending Palmer High and wrestling for Martin Davidson while living in a foster home.

“For a kid with one leg to choose wrestling as a sport, it shows something about his character because it’s not easy,” said Davidson, who has since retired from coaching after 31 seasons. “It is a brutal sport and it takes years of training and technique to get to a high level. It was tough on Sam, but he has shown progression and was willing to put in the time and work.”

While compiling a 5-16 varsity record as a junior, Sam was also working toward his next move – one of his choice.

Sam Leishman and Scarborough freshman Liam Marshall practice wrestling techniques.

Sam’s Colorado adoption caseworker had found a prospective adoptive father 2,100 miles away in Scarborough: Dan Mercer, an associate chaplain at Long Creek Youth Development Center. Because Mercer had already been a single father to 15 boys, six of whom he had adopted, he is part of a national registry of potential foster and adoptive parents.

Over the course of a year, Mercer and Sam got to know each other. Mercer traveled to Colorado. Sam came to Maine for a visit. Mercer decided he was ready to take one more son into his large, unconventional family. Sam decided he was ready for one more move, one he hopes will provide a longed-for sense of home.

“I could have done emancipation, but I would have stayed in my group home for another year, year-and-a-half,” Sam said. “I wanted to have a little freedom and to have a normal child life, or a normal teenage life. Plus, family is more important to me. I’d like to be with a family.”

“Once he was un-adopted, like so many foster kids, he bounced from home to home, foster to group home and basically doing the shelter shuffle,” said Mercer, 57.

“The advantage of adopting is the permanency piece. I’m still a full-time parent for all my kids, but the goal of any good parent is to help them be independent. The goal for Sam is to be able to go to college in the fall and transition out of the home, but this will always be his home.”

UPPER-BODY STRENGTH FORMIDABLE

Sam’s legal last name remains Leishman until the adoption becomes official on Feb. 20, but he has already begun referring to himself as Sam Mercer.

He arrived in Scarborough just a few days before his senior year of high school. This fall, he joined the school’s football team as a manager. He routinely participated in conditioning drills prodding the big linemen to try to keep up with his speedy double-crutch sprints.

An avid YouTuber, Sam posted videos of himself kicking a field goal at practice and a speech he gave the team before the state championship game. After each of the Red Storm’s 10 victories, he performed a visually dramatic hand stand on his crutches.

“He was pretty motivational to our team,” Scarborough football coach Lance Johnson said. “Just to be that positive, that upbeat, that encouraging. And obviously he’s been through a lot and that guy’s not going to quit. The other guys, they see that and think, if he’s not going to quit, I’m not going to either.”

Sam says he joined the football team because he wanted the opportunity to work out to prepare for wrestling, a sport where he can be a full participant.

“There aren’t too many things where Sam can compete on a level playing field, and wrestling is that one sport where his disability isn’t working against him,” Mercer said.

Sam Leishman leans on assistant wrestling coach Michael Cyr during a practice Dec. 18 at Scarborough High School. “This year, my goal is to win a lot more than I did in the last three years, as well as making it to state,” the senior says. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

So far this season, Sam is 1-0 in varsity competition, beating Kennebunk freshman Toby Dunne by major decision on Dec. 13 in a 145-pound match.

In practices he routinely drills with Jeremy Sendrowski, Scarborough’s best wrestler and a former Class A champion. Against Sendrowski, who has wrestled since preschool, Sam’s limitations in terms of mobility and techniques are exposed. But Sendrowski said his partner’s upper-body strength will make him a formidable opponent.

“He’s taken me down a couple of times, for real,” Sendrowski said. “Once he gets in on that low single leg (takedown), it’s like a death grip.”

Rather than trying to stand on one leg, Sam typically crouches low and looks to get his wrestling opponent to the mat. That’s where he can use his biggest advantages – his strength and his relatively large upper body – which are enhanced compared with his two-legged opponents.

“If I had both legs, I’d probably be wrestling at 175 or 180 (pounds),” Sam said. “But because I’m missing my left leg I’m wrestling for 145 and dropping down to 138 soon.”

Plus, “a lot of people haven’t wrestled a guy or girl with a missing leg. I feel like it has a lot of advantages because I’m a lot stronger than the guys who I wrestle.”

Sam’s advantages were apparent when he was working drills in practice with 138-pound freshman Liam Marshall. In that matchup, Sam had a clear upper hand, routinely wrapping up Marshall and putting him into a pin position.

“He gets people who are starting to roll him and uses very slight momentum to roll them onto their back. He’s really strong,” Marshall said.

A WRESTLER IN GOOD COMPANY

Sam’s life has been eventful in positive ways in the past year.

His adoption recruiter helped him find that both of his biological parents are alive. Through letters, he learned that he has five younger half-siblings in Ethiopia and learned more details about his early years.

“It gave me a lot more information. I was hoping it would, and it did,” Sam said. “I’m glad they’re both alive and doing really well and they’re really proud of me for who I am.”

Six months ago, he underwent a surgery to shave off a portion of his remaining left femur and deaden nerve endings, which have made wearing a prosthesis less painful.

In Scarborough, he found that he and Mercer share a love for cooking. Sam plans to attend a culinary arts school in the fall, with the goal of being a chef.

Before then, there are things to do: take driver’s education, attend the prom “with a girl,” and to have a strong finish to his high school wrestling career.

Other amputees have wrestled in Maine. Matt Barry of Kennebunk competed with a prosthesis after having his lower right leg amputated because of cancer in 1999. Shaun Bridges of Westbrook, who barely escaped a house fire as a 5-year-old, wore a prosthesis after his left foot was amputated in seventh grade and had little use of his left arm.

Nationally, amputee wrestlers have met with significant success. Robles was a two-time state high school champion in Arizona. In 2016, Zion Shaver, who was born without any legs, completed a 33-15 senior season at Massilon Washington High in Ohio, while double-amputee Hassan Hawthorne, who was born without tibias, won an Alabama state championship.

“Last year I didn’t do so well, so I lost in regionals,” Sam said. “This year, my goal is to win a lot more than I did in the last three years, as well as making it to state. It will be awesome when I do go to states and when I win. That’s what I’d like to be, a state champion, but for sure making it to states.

“And I want to set a good legacy for Scarborough High School. People can say we had a guy with one leg and he became a state champion, or he wrestled for Scarborough High School. He was an amazing guy. That’s what I want.”

Steve Craig can be reached at 791-6413 or:

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Twitter: SteveCCraig

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