There Is Nothing Special About Kyle Maynard…
Credit: Jeffrey Mayer / Getty Images
If he sets aside red-state, blue-state issues, one of the first things a northerner notices down South is how comparatively gracious its teenagers are, treating guests not with reflexive irony but a sunny brand of formal respect. On campus, jocks and frat boys hold doors for you, and sorority girls stop when asked directions, smiling as you repeat them back. Though his family didn't move to Georgia till he was almost 12, Maynard is an exemplar of Southern manners, meeting your gaze warmly and giving smart answers to questions he's had put to him many times. Even around his parents – the ultimate stress test for kids – he's unfailingly courteous and even-tempered, letting slide their mild attempts to run his life. He's on the road two weekends of every month, earning big money on the lecture circuit, and is waiting to take delivery on the ultimate SUV, a chromed-out International MXT with specially modified pedals (price: six figures; approximate wheelbase: one and a half Hummer lengths). Additionally, he signed a lucrative deal to write his autobiography. I learned most of those details from his family, however; Maynard views such proffers of fact as a crime akin to bragging.

But on the day of his four-school round-robin tournament, a different Maynard shows up. He is surly, fire-eyed, monosyllabic; no one, not even his teammates, goes near him. While they banter and stretch, checking the smallish crowd (the men's basketball team is hosting Kentucky, siphoning off much of the student body), he wanders over to the edge of the mat, doing freakishly hard drawbridge lifts. (Lie flat on your gut, pull your legs up off the ground, and raise your chest off the mat. Now repeat that 30 times, then call an ambulance.) As he blasts out reps, foes from Clemson, Mercer, and Newberry gape at his show of strength. Even those who have seen Maynard wrestle before nudge the guys next to them and whisper. In a combat sport that hinges on bravery and the willingness to give and take pain, the sight of a limbless kid without fear is enough to scare off competitors. One time in high school, his opponent tapped out, resigning before the match even really started. That hasn't happened in college, but there are lots of ways to duck him; one is to flunk the morning weigh-in and come in over 125.

That, or something like it, is what happens today. Maynard's foe, the kid from Newberry College who narrowly edged him last fall, has shown up five pounds overweight and will compete in the next bracket up. The wrestler who fills in for him is a wiry teen whose thighs are about the size of Kyle's arm-stumps. From the start, it's abundantly clear that he wants no part of Maynard, shuffling out of reach or fending him off with stiff-arms to the head. Over and over, Maynard charges after him and finally grabs his leg, using it to shove him from the circle. This earns him a lead and changes the kid's tactics; in the second round, he gets on the mat and grapples. But even born with four limbs, he can't lock up Maynard, who takes him down with a shoulder to the jaw. Maynard is safely ahead now but keeps on grinding, whacking away at his foe's ribs. By the end of the bout, the boy can hardly stand. If this were anyone but Maynard, you'd call it a walkover.

I catch up to him in the hall outside, where he has wheeled off to decompress. He seems strangely down after a lopsided win, and shrugs when I point it out. "I'm bummed that the first kid came in heavy. He's the best in my weight class, and I trained hard for him."

"Well, a W's a W, right?"

He shoots me what, for him, is a filthy look. "It's not about padding my won-lost record; it's about competing at the highest level. Otherwise, why practice three hours a night? I can win whenever I want to at video games."

Kyle confides that he's thought about transferring to a top-tier, Division I school. Because of Title IX, college wrestling at Georgia and its Southeastern Conference rivals has been downgraded to a club-level sport, meaning the athletes themselves pay to play it. Maynard and his teammates must fund everything from plane tickets to school tuition. (It isn't, of course, the only sport thus affected; on campuses around the country, baseball, tennis, and soccer have been lopped off budgets entirely.) Maynard is among the lucky ones on his team, earning a half-scholarship in academics because of his A-minus record in high school. Still, he hungers to take it to the next level, defying all odds and the advice of friends who tell him, politely, to stay put. Cautions Ramos, his old coach at Collins Hill, "There's only so many ways you can get around the problem of having no arms and legs. I've had better wrestlers – with all their extremities – try Division I and fail."

We head back into the wrestling theater, where the crowd has grown. While we were out, Maynard's team fell behind to a very good Newberry squad. Crestfallen, he slides out of his chair and scoots to the edge of the mat. He is down on all fours, screaming encouragement; the veins in his forehead bulge. I return to my seat in the pullout bleachers, beside an elderly man with two grandkids. Clad in red sweatshirts and UG Bulldog hats, the young boys are emphatic fans, hopping up and down at each fall. While one of them explains the point system to me, the other nervously chews his sleeve, groaning at Georgia's mistakes. "C'mon," he mutters, "circle, circle! There's your shot now, take it!" But things get worse, not better, for his 'Dawgs, who drop match after match for an hour. Then, near the end, Georgia makes its run, winning at the higher weight classes. For the nail-biting finish between superheavies, the crowd gets up on its feet. "Suck it up!" yells the young boy. "You're not tired now – be like Kyle!"

On my last night in town, I meet the Maynards for dinner at a mall near their home. In Suwanee, Outback Steakhouse is considered glitzy, and on a weekend evening the line for a table rivals that at Spago or Nobu. As we pace out the wait, something notable happens over and over. Strangers approach and, with the deference of monks, ask if they can speak to Kyle. "You changed my life," says a blue-haired lady visiting from Maine. "I watched you on Larry King, and you so inspired me. I'm coping with a lot of health issues myself." Following behind her are two hockey players from Canada's University of Guelph, who are in town for a semipro game. "Dude, you fuckin' rock," says the shorter of the two yobs. "I said, if that guy can get up and train each day, there's no excuse not to go a hundred miles an hour and skate through fuckin' brick walls."

Maynard's parents, devout Christians, wince through smiles. "We hear that a lot, though usually with less cursing," his father says once we're seated. "Maybe they were delirious from hunger."

I ask Kyle how he copes with the attention, which, as near as I can tell, is constant. His website is clogged, his cell phone keeps ringing, and wherever he goes, he's buttonholed by people who stop to tell him their stories. As a young man famous for surmounting hardship, he's become a kind of lodestone for the disadvantaged, or in some cases, the merely unhappy. That kind of onus can oppress a kid who's six months past his prom, and who, in his first year of college, is juggling a full course load with a varsity athlete's schedule.

"Well, no, it's great that people get hope from my story, and if it helps even a couple of 'em, that's amazing. But – " he pauses a moment, and I lie in wait for his first harsh utterance all week, "the truth of the matter is, it feels hollow sometimes. I don't really deserve all this."

The chatter around the table stops dead. "What do you mean?" asks Anita.

Kyle fusses with his shirttail, picking the words carefully; it's clear he's been brooding on this a while. "Look, there's hundreds of thousands of wrestlers in the country right now, and out of all of them, I'm maybe above average. And for this kind of spotlight – going to parties at Hef's mansion and winning an ESPY and all that – I feel like I should be great. Hands or no hands."

"Isn't that a little unfair?" says his father. "You've done a lot of things in a real short time that nobody in their right mind thought were possible."

"But that's exactly my point," he counters. "Just because I've done 'em means that anyone else could've, if they were in this chair. And as far as being a hero, I don't think so. That's the guys in Falluja, fighting and dying."

This launches a discussion of sensible goals, the mere mention of which makes Kyle bristle. He has already game-planned the next 10 years, culminating in a career in on-air journalism as a news anchor or sports-talk host. That much, his parents stand behind; it's the step before it that scares them stiff. After graduating, it is Kyle's avid intention to become a steel cage fighter, competing on the Ultimate Fighting circuit à la his idol and mentor, Randy Couture. (Kyle met the reigning light-heavyweight champion at one of his matches in Las Vegas. They get together when possible, usually at Couture's bouts.)

That no one has entered this savage sport without limbs to kick or punch with doesn't faze Kyle. Any wall can be scaled or jumped over, he says, if you put in work and embrace pain. "Whenever I get tired or my lungs start burning, that's when I kick up the jams," he says. "Because pain, to me, is just another word for weakness leaving the body."

Well, certainly that's one view. Another is that pain is vital information, like a yield sign at an on-ramp. You can blow right past it to get places faster, but you can also get crushed by an 18-wheeler doing 70 in the slow lane. In his haste to silence the mean-spirited and stupid – the folks who called up HBO and said, "Bullshit, he can't do that" – Kyle has put himself in harm's way, letting indignation call the shots. As a high school senior, he broke his nose four times, but refused to get it set or go see a doctor who might rule him out of regionals. He's torn a pectoral muscle benching 410, has chronic spine problems that he ignores in order to wrestle, and rarely gets back from practice before midnight, with three hours of homework ahead of him. There's also the little matter of his autobiography, which the publisher expects from him early this summer at some 80,000 words.

Still, there's more than just masochism at work here, or the supernormal drive of the disadvantaged. When you stand next to Kyle Maynard or see him on television, something very potent comes across the wire, and it's more complex than courage or hope. The word that springs to mind is a quaint one: nobility. And even that term isn't equal to the task. He makes you want to be better – not a better person, but a better, truer version of who you are; stronger, braver, and ready to meet the world on its terms. It's easy to see why he drew a crowd of 15,000 for a speech at the Junior Olympics, or why corporate executives fly him in to talk at their sales conventions. He isn't merely the sum of his mastered shortcomings; he's a winner with the humility of a fighter who lost a lot once and learned some hard lessons along the way. Anyone can talk when he's on top of the world, but it's the guy who got there from a long way down that can really teach you things you need to know.

In the past couple of decades we've developed ways to calibrate life's unfairness. We no longer speak, say, of the paralyzed as crippled or the brain-damaged as retarded, instead using such blocky constructions as "-challenged" or "other-enabled." Clumsy though the words are, they represent progress, an earnest attempt to view the impaired as full-blooded fellow creatures. What we haven't yet done is to coin new language for those who are clearly superior, those men and women whose dynamism advances our entire species. Call it genius or merit or inborn goodness, what they have in spades is the power to go forward, to test the bounds of what's known. We are lucky to have them, and luckier still to know them, and the least we owe them is a name. Until someone has a better idea, I humbly submit the term "Maynards."

The next day, on my way out of town, I stop at Collins Hill High to see Coach Ramos. It would be hard to overstate his fondness for Kyle, or the part he's played in the boy's life. In the fall of 2003, he mass-mailed tapes of him to local and national media; a copy made its way to HBO, and soon the land-rush started. I find Ramos alone in the wrestling room, laying down mats for varsity practice with a craftsman's slow precision. He walks me over to the Wall of Fame, where the stars of the past decade are pictured. Here are his state champions and finalists, kids who lettered for two and three years and went on to wrestle in college. But the boy most prominently featured is Kyle, photos of whom are clustered in a small shrine.

"I'm a pretty tough fellow – just ask some of my guys here – but there were times during practice I'd have to turn away because I was all choked up," says Ramos. "What he did defied physics, let alone wrestling – you can't just take someone and throw him on his back if you don't have arms to do it – but every day he did the impossible. He put us on the map, brought all this attention to a small-town school in Georgia, and made every kid work harder by example. I've been at this 29 years, and there are days I come in here and don't really have much energy. Then I look at that wall and see his picture up there and think, What would Kyle do?"