Nick Mauriello Jr. won a fight for his life last winter, and now the 17-year-old Hauppauge High School wrestler is back doing what he loves -- winning matches.
In January, Mauriello was diagnosed with MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), a life-threatening bacterial infection, and Lemierre's syndrome, a rare inflammation of the blood vessels that doctors said was an offshoot of MRSA, which is transferred by blood-to-blood contact.
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He spent 19 days at Stony Brook Long Island Children's Hospital. The MRSA diagnosis was made quickly, but Mauriello's condition worsened while doctors were unable to diagnose the Lemierre's syndrome, a rarer and possibly more dangerous disease.
"I remember getting out and looking at myself. I got really skinny. I don't even know how," said Mauriello, who says he has little recollection of his hospital stay or the details of the near-fatal illnesses. "Before I went in, I weighed about 145 pounds and then I was down to 110."
Mauriello has made a stunning comeback. He is now the No. 1 ranked wrestler in his 138-pound weight class in Suffolk County. He has won his first 10 matches this season, including the championship of the Sprig Garden Tournament at East Hampton on Dec. 10.
Mauriello also won Saturday's Bellport Invitational title in the 138-pound weight class.
"I'm in the best shape I've ever been in," Mauriello said last week after a second-period pin over a Commack opponent at a dual meet won by Hauppauge.
"It's kind of weird," he said. "Over the summer, I couldn't really breathe at all, and now I can go home after a match and not even be tired."
An arduous summer training program has produced remarkable results. "I've never seen him so determined," said Mauriello's father, Nick Sr., a volunteer assistant coach at Hauppauge. "It was almost like a 'Rocky' movie the way he was training. It was inspiring."
Hauppauge wrestling coach Chris Messina said, "He's all the way back."
Junior Mark West, one of the top wrestlers on the Hauppauge team, has been inspired by Mauriello. "We became a happier team when he came back into the [wrestling] room," West said. "To have a teammate back, who fought for his life like that, was a great feeling."
The wrestler's ordeal has led to a proposed bill in the State Legislature that would more closely regulate hygiene in high school athletics. At first reluctant to embrace his symbolic role, Mauriello, who plans to wrestle at 132 pounds after the Christmas break, now says, "I'm fine with it. You don't want anyone getting sick and going to the hospital."
Most MRSA infections are on the skin and treatable, but can become life-threatening when the bacteria enter the bloodstream. The infections commonly occur at breaks in the skin and are common among athletes who have skin-to-skin contact, such as wrestlers.
After Mauriello's illnesses and the possibility that unsanitary conditions might have been a cause, state Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) drafted legislation that would regulate hygiene in high school sports.
The bill, to be reintroduced to the Assembly in January, would mandate, among other things, that all schools holding wrestling tournaments have working showers.
Mauriello said he has observed some improved conditions this season.
"The tournament we went to , they mopped the mats between each round and they had really good showers that were working," he said. "They used to have locker rooms that were locked."
Messina said that Mauriello's experience has, in some ways, "made a bad thing into a good thing. We've seen it with the way people are preparing at meets. I see it with my own kids showering. I'll have to see it at the big tournaments, and I think I will."
Mauriello, now a senior, was home-schooled for almost three months after being released from the hospital and returned to Hauppauge High School in early May. He is in good academic standing and intends to wrestle in college.
Recruiters know his story and have Mauriello on their radar screens. His father said Binghamton University, Clarion University of Pennsylvania, Lock Haven (Pa.) University and several others have expressed interest.
Mauriello is low-key about the attention he is receiving. "He's got ice in his veins. Nothing fazes him," his father said.
While other wrestlers get themselves pumped up for matches by practicing their moves or jumping rope, burning off nervous energy, Mauriello sits or stands quietly, leaving his warm-up clothes on until just before he steps onto the mat.
"I've always been a calm person," he said. "I don't get nervous before a match. I know I'm going to go out and win, no matter who it is."
With all that he's been through, would he allow himself an emotional celebration if he were to win the state championship in March?
"Probably not," Mauriello said. "It's just not me."