RBC athlete’s faith takes him from despair to domination on the mat
By Rich Fisher | Contributing Editor
During early autumn 2017, Steve Cmielewski was not in a good way. A year after starting at middle linebacker for the Red Bank Catholic football team as a sophomore, Cmielewski suffered a season-ending broken ankle three plays into his junior season.
Doctors told him he would miss both the football and wrestling seasons. His entire life now consisted of trying to get better.
“I was devastated at first,” Cmielewski said.
But through devastation, came realization.
“That’s really when I found my faith,” Cmielewski said. “I had a lot of time … and I was really getting down on myself. … I was just lying on my couch and thinking, ‘This is my life, and it’s taken away from me, what am I gonna do?’ I was just praying to God, asking for guidance and help, and I just think he gave it to me. My faith is what motivates me in sports and everything in life.”
Photo Gallery: Red Bank Catholic vs. Paul IV
Cmielewski returned to competition quicker than anyone imagined last year, and is enjoying a spectacular senior season in athletics.
After undergoing surgery in late October 2017, he was told he would be unable to start running for six months. He was back in four.
Through rigorous rehab sessions that often lasted three hours, and thanks to a laterally suspended device his dad built that allowed Cmielewski to simulate running without touching the ground, he began wrestling in February. After just six regular-season matches, he reached the district finals and finished sixth in the regionals.
“This is what he is; he tears it up,” Caseys’ coach Joe Gallagher said. “He is so focused on what he’s gotta do. I can say this without a shadow of a doubt – you cannot find a harder working kid.”
Cmielewski, a member of St. Catherine of Siena Parish, Farmingdale, grew up playing football and dabbled in recreation wrestling in middle school.
He decided to do both sports at RBC and, as a freshman, went 12-11 despite having extremely limited experience on the mat.
“The minute he came in, there was something I just really liked about him,” said Gallagher, who is also an assistant football coach. “Before I even saw him wrestle, before I saw him play football, there was just something very sweet about him. He’s a very warm kid without saying much. He listens, and he’s 100 percent focused on what you tell him. He’s the definition of a throwback kid.”
Cmielewski enjoyed wrestling so much that he joined the renowned Elite club wrestling program prior to his sophomore year, and the results were immediately noticeable. He went 22-8 and led the Caseys in wins while placing second in District 24 and qualifying for regions. He got to the point where he was training for both sports almost year-round.
“It’s rough, but I get joy out of it, so it’s not really hard,” Cmielewski said. “I just think if I’m going to do something, I want to be the best.”
Poised for a monster junior year, it all came crashing down when he suffered the injury. But determination and faith allowed Cmielewski to cut his losses.
“For the first week, I really couldn’t even believe what happened,” he said. “I had been training so long getting ready for it, and in the first game I break my ankle and they tell me I can’t even wrestle. Once I got over it, I came back to reality. I just tried to do everything I could to get back.”
It’s paying off this year. Cmielewski returned to play linebacker and fullback in helping the football team to the NJSIAA Non-Public Group III championship. He recently decided to continue his football career at Stonehill, a Roman Catholic College in Easton, Mass.
On the mat, he has reached another level. Wrestling at 220 pounds, Cmielewski carried a 30-1 record into the Caseys Feb. 6 NJSIAA Non-Public South A semifinal match with St. John Vianney. (The winner of that match wrestles for the sectional title Feb. 8.)
“I’m happy with my effort so far, but there’s a lot of things I have to work on still,” he said. “I’m just trying to get better in conditioning and technique every day, and I want to keep getting my confidence up.”
His lone loss this year came in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals, where he dropped a 3-2 decision to Point Pleasant Borough’s Billy Borowsky. It was a lesson learned.
Asked about his thoughts on getting to the state meet this year, Cmielewski declined, saying, “right now, it’s all about the team. We want to try and win the team tournament.”
His coaches, however, feel this could be the year.
“He’s the definition of a grinder,” Gallagher said. “He will do what he’s gotta do. He’s solid on his feet; he’s tough on top. I wouldn’t say there is one thing he’s overwhelming at, but there’s not a weakness. He’s gonna be in great shape and give you everything he’s got.”