"The first thing that came to my mind was: ‘I told you so.’ I knew I wasn’t going to let this injury stop me. It was a flurry of emotions.” — Dylan Rifenberg
Deep within the heart of every young athlete is the drive to be great. Many have the dream, but few have the will to see it through. During his time at Palmyra-Macedon, wrestler Dylan Rifenberg has exhibited just that — and overcome more than he could have ever imagined.
It all began two years ago. Rifenberg was a sophomore on the Red Raiders’ wrestling team. He was successful. He was fresh off a 37-16 campaign as a freshman, including 21 pins and a fifth-place finish at Super Sectionals.
He was young. Not even a learner’s permit in his wallet — and adjusting to a new weight class.
He was ambitious. Rifenberg was slated to be the starter at 119 pounds for the Red Raiders; a prime addition to a perennial powerhouse.
But his flourishing future was postponed during the 2009 edition of the Cheektowaga Duals. Rifenberg’s knee turned to cement, and though he stomached the affliction to triumph the match, he was soon admitted at Newark-Wayne Community Hospital.
Degenerative joint disease — or osteoarthritis — was the diagnosis. Worse yet, orthopedic surgeon Dr. Daniel Alexander delivered the heart-wrenching news that Rifenberg’s disease was not only career-ending and that he will never wrestle again, but that he will require complete knee replacement surgery by his 25th birthday.
“I was shocked and instantly said ‘no,’” Rifenberg recalled. “I was thinking, ‘It’s not going to happen this way.’ I denied it entirely. I told the doctor that I’ve been dealing with all sorts of injuries my entire life and that pain didn’t matter to me. I told him that if I am already going to have my knees replaced in the future, then what more damage could I really do? Bottom line, I was going to wrestle. Nothing was stopping me from my passion.”
Now fast forward to Feb. 10, 2012.
In basketball, there’s the time Michael Jordan “made the impossible, possible.” In football, the immaculate reception. Add to that Rifenberg’s miracle on the mat.
Rifenberg’s 126-pound bout in the Super Sectional finals will be recalled with similar reverence by Palmyra-Macedon wrestlers for decades to come. With an automatic New York state championship berth on the line, Rifenberg crafted an escape late in the third period to send the Division II clash into overtime. To thicken the plot, this was a rematch to the prior week’s sectional final pairing — a meeting Rifenberg lost, 8-4. But in what could have been the final 60 seconds of his high school wrestling career — one medical professional’s believed had ended 27 months prior — Rifenberg disproved science and put the exclamation point on a miraculous comeback.
“The first thing that came to my mind was, ‘I told you so,’” Rifenberg said of his initial reaction to his Super Sectional victory, which only 14 others in school history have achieved. “I knew I wasn’t going to let this injury stop me. I told the doctor that flat out. It was a flurry of emotions. I did what I had to do to win.”
Page 2 of 3 - Rewind back to the dreadful day in the doctor’s office.
Rifenberg’s father Tim explained his son’s diagnosis in simpler terms.
“Dylan’s disease attacks the cartilage causing lesions,” he said. “Soon enough, the cartilage will peel off the bone like peeling wallpaper from the wall. As we speak, Dylan has zero cartilage in his left knee, and his right knee is covered with lesions.”
Because of the extent of damage to Rifenberg’s knees, which doctors referred to as “the knees of a 90-year-old man,” complex surgery was required to increase blood flow to his joints to enable the creation of scar tissue. Surgeons removed all deteriorated scar tissue and then drilled 13 holes into Rifenberg’s femur (thigh bone) — the longest and largest bone in the body.
“We were expecting a 30-45 minute surgery,” Rifenberg’s father said. “Three hours later, the doctor came out with the career-ending news along with the information that Dylan would need complete knee replacement surgery by age 25.”
But the hardest part was yet to come. Rifenberg had yet to share his devastation with his Red Raider teammates and head coach, Brian Quick. Plus, grueling physical therapy was also on his to-do list.
“My mom (Tammy Rifenberg) came into school to talk with Quick during one of his classes,” said Rifenberg, who’s enrolled in all honors courses at Pal-Mac with a 92 overall average. “He looked like he was pretty upset. After class I went and talked to him and he said it didn’t look good for me. I said I would do my best to convince my doctor to let me wrestle. I wanted to go out there and do what I love to do.”
Rifenberg began his rehab at BrownStone Physical Therapy, sculpting his leg muscles back into a form that booked him a seat on the bus to this weekend’s state tournament at the Times Union Center in Albany. And while such is a phenomenal conquest in itself, so is Rifenberg’s regal resume. He began his senior campaign with 37-straight victories that factor into a stout 43-2 mark this year, including 22 pins. In his career, Rifenberg has a 123-31 overall record with 62 pins (seven under the one-minute mark) and has outscored his adversaries 600-103. He has four top-three finishes at sectionals and four top-five finishes at Super Sectionals, and never once has Rifenberg been pinned by an opponent.
“It all starts at the pee wee level,” said Rifenberg of his success. “I am one of the most unorthodox wrestlers in all of New York state. Everyone calls it ‘funk.’ You kind of just wing it. It all comes from a feel for the mat and the only way to get that is from experience, and that’s where it all began for me since the age of six.”
Page 3 of 3 - Bad days happen. Rifenberg has already experienced a life’s worth of bad days. It shines through in his character. He’s leaning toward attending Clarkson University next fall, and they don’t have a wrestling team. So with just one weekend of grappling left in red-and-white attire, Rifenberg is playing with house money and has nothing to lose.