High School Wrestling: West Fork's Rafe Arbegast overcomes heart, eye surgeries to pursue goals
May 31, 2023
West Fork wrestler Rafe Arbegast competes at Forest City High School.
West Fork wrestler Rafe Arbegast poses for a photo with his mother, Jeana Arbegast (left), and his father, Jared Arbegast (right).
SHEFFIELD -- The West Fork High School boys’ wrestling team has just one athlete on its roster — Rafe Arbegast.
He’s all the Warhawks have left, and they are lucky to have him: Rafe has had to work just to get on the mat. Over the years he’s undergone more than half a dozen surgeries to correct issues with his heart and eyes.
Rafe is coached by his father, Jared Arbegast, who has been head coach of the Warhawks for the last 10 years. The 2022-23 season is his first with a one-man team.
“This is my 10th year, and I’ve always had roughly around 10,” Jared said. “... West Fork is very well-known for basketball, which is fine. All the schools that create West Fork — none of them have wrestling. So, when you think about it, it’s still really new to this school. There’s years I’ve had up to 20 or 21, and then it kind of tails off.”
As a result, Jared has been Rafe’s sparring partner this season. Jared outweighs Rafe — who usually competes at 126 or 132 pounds — by about 100 pounds.
“It’s very challenging,” Rafe said of practicing with his father. “Honestly, sometimes it’s kind of nice. When you actually go into a match and try to move someone, it’s almost easier to move them. You’re used to someone being so much heavier that’s harder to move, so you have to use a lot more force and everything."
But father-son sparring sessions can get a little tense. Rafe’s mother, Jeana Arbegast, has had to separate the pair. She usually sends Rafe to his bedroom and Jared to his office to put walls between them.
“Sometimes, mom has to be the mediator when we get home,” Jared said.
Rafe was raised in a family of wrestlers. Jared wrestled in high school — as did Jeana’s father and three brothers. Rafe’s brother, Jarel Arbegast, was a runner-up in the 170-pound division of the 2016-17 IHSAA State Tournament. He went on to wrestle at Grand View University in Des Moines.
“I’ve been in wrestling my whole life,” Rafe said. “My dad has always wrestled. My mom’s side has always wrestled. My brother was a pretty good wrestler. So, it’s just been a part of my entire family. That’s how I got into it.”
Along the way he's battled health issues.
Rafe’s first procedure — a pulmonary valve removal — came when he was an infant. A few years later, he had to have an artificial valve surgically implanted. The valve ultimately didn’t work properly. To correct the issue, surgeons put a Melody valve in his heart. Melody transcatheter pulmonary valves are used to replace blocked or leaky artificial valves, according to the Children’s Hospital Colorado website.
Doctors have operated on Rafe’s eyes four times. He’s had glasses since he was a year old.
Rafe’s heart condition has prevented him from playing many contact sports, like football. High velocity impacts are more dangerous for him than regular athletes. Because wrestling doesn’t feature as many explosive hits as football, Rafe’s doctors have cleared him to participate in the sport. But there were still occasions when Rafe wasn’t healthy enough to get a green light from his cardiologist.
“Some years, we didn’t get the clearance at all — partially because of things going on in surgeries,” Jeana said. “I think we may have downplayed wrestling and the intensity of it to our cardiologist. He didn’t know as much about it, but we have verified that it would be pretty safe for (Rafe). It’s just sort of gone back and forth depending on what his health issues are that year.”
His most recent heart surgery was in eighth grade. He was diagnosed with a blood infection in his heart in October 2018. Initially, Rafe thought he would rebound from the infection quickly. But in December 2018, he learned he would lose his entire eighth-grade campaign when his care team told him he’d need another heart procedure.
Rafe said it took him more than a year to fully recover. Doctors would not allow Rafe to run or lift anything heavier than a gallon of milk because such activities would strain his heart. When he returned to school, he couldn’t carry his own backpack.
“That one hurt,” Rafe said of his eighth-grade heart surgery. “It hurts a lot. So, then you have to try and wait until you can actually be healthy again, to be cleared to go do stuff. ... Then, you have to try and get all your strength back up and everything. So, it’s a lot of work. A lot of extra work you have to do to get back to where you were.”
He returned to the mat for his freshman season. He hasn’t had any major setbacks since.
Rafe is still limited in some ways. As a freshman, he competed at 106 pounds but only weighed 98. He has moved up multiple weight classes over the last three years, but he still has to pay close attention when he cuts weight. Doctors discourage him from dropping extreme amounts of weight like some wrestlers do before each match.
“So it’s always like, ‘Oh, we probably can’t go much lower than (126)," Jared said. "So you know what? We have fun with it, work hard, and do our best.”
Rafe wrestled at 113 pounds last season, made it to the IHSAA District Tournament and finished fourth. Wrestlers that place first or second in their district tournament advance to state.
His goal this season is a berth in the state tournament. He is currently 6-8 on the season and recently finished fourth at the Chris Davis Invitational at Wapsie Valley High School in Fairbank.
“I think I’m going to have to work hard, push through a lot of stuff,” Rafe said of his postseason aspirations. “I need to work a lot on my bottom defense and work on conditioning, mostly. Just need to keep my feet moving. I get caught flat-footed a lot.”
Four years removed from his last heart surgery, Rafe said he’s fearless and doesn’t think about his condition on the mat. Winning and reaching his goal are at the top of his mind, not his heart and eyes.
“I try not to worry about it,” Rafe said. “There might be some cases where I might, but I usually try not to think about it, just let it flow, just do what I can do."
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