Pinned to the top of his Twitter profile, Holly Springs wrestler Joshua Lehr has kept a photo, taken by The News Observer, as a painful reminder of his biggest match and his most recent loss.
Lehr is in the foreground, wearing his warmups. Behind him, the 2016 N.C. High School Athletic Association 113-pound champion has his hand held in the air by the referee. As a sophomore, Lehr reached the biggest stage in the state, but could not compete.
In the semifinals, Lehr had suffered a concussion and a separated shoulder on an illegal throw. Though Lehr was awarded the win, which moved him to the finals, he could not compete. The forfeit was the only “loss” he took all year.
The caption Lehr put on the photo reads: “Being forced to walk away from a state championship was one of the most painful things I’ve ever had to do.”
“I still look at it to this day,” Lehr said. “The reason that it’s up there is it’s a reminder to take every opportunity you can get, because you’re not always going to get that chance. Not everything’s within your control.”
This weekend, Lehr hopes his winding journey back ends with his hand being raised this time.
“I’ve seen his drive since his injury. I know he wants it badly,” Holly Springs coach Ryan Doggett said. “I look forward to him doing some big things here and then in college.”
Lehr has no hard feelings against his opponent from his sophomore year semifinals, Hopewell’s Esco Walker. Both were undefeated.
“It probably should’ve been the finals match,” Lehr said.
Both wrestlers were on their feet and got tied up. Walker had Lehr’s left arm trapped as the two returned to the mat. Lehr, unable to catch himself, was thrown down on his left side, shoulder-and-head-first.
“They diagnosed it on the spot,” Lehr said of the concussion.
By rule, trapping the arm on a mat return disqualifies the other wrestler. Walker was disqualified, but it wasn’t an act of desperation: Walker led Lehr as time ticked away in the third period.
“I didn’t want to win that way. ... I don’t know if I would’ve won it,” Lehr said. “It was just something that happened. It wasn’t intentional.”
The injuries kept Lehr out of NHSCA Junior Nationals, which Walker won, and FloNationals, where Walker placed. Kevin Saravia of Laney, who Lehr had defeated 9-2 two weeks earlier, took home the state title.
“It killed me,” Lehr said. “But, for me, that was motivation coming back the next two years.”
A second injury, another try
Lehr, who wrestled his freshman year at Panther Creek, has more than 100 career wins.
He was 37-1 as a sophomore and his shoulder injury bothered him into his junior year. After taking some time to get healthy, he started wrestling about midway through the year, and was 7-0, when he broke his right shoulder.
At that point, his junior year was done as well.
“It was just re-injured and aggravated and I didn’t want anything serious to happen,” Lehr said. “Might as well take off what little I had in my junior year and come back better prepared, you know?”
After injuries ended his last two years, Lehr had to overcome mental hurdles this season
So he gave himself something bigger to worry about to start his senior year: bigger wrestlers. Now at 132 pounds, Lehr started the season wrestling at 145 pounds and then 138.
“It was something that kind of haunted me in a way,” Lehr said. “It makes you afraid, and makes you cautious to wrestle and that’s something that you can’t have in this sport because you can’t hesitate. And it took me a little to get over that.”
Even though he spent more than half the season going against bigger, stronger opponents, Lehr (25-0) is undefeated once again.
The semifinals of the 4A state championships are Friday and the finals are Saturday at the Greensboro Coliseum.
It’s Lehr’s first time back in the championships since the photo was taken.
“I’ve moved past it and it helps me, but it’s good to look back at it and appreciate what you have,” Lehr said. “Don’t take anything for granted.”