The following article appeared in the Army Official Sports Report on Monday, February 8, 2010 and features wrestler Richard Starks. It was written by John Ferro.
Army senior Richard Starks knew something was wrong. But he had no idea it would require heart surgery.
On Nov. 14, Starks was wrestling in the State University of New York at Brockport/Oklahoma Gold Wrestling Showcase, just outside of Rochester, N.Y.
“I was dizzy,” said Starks, who won at least 33 matches in each of his last two seasons at West Point. “I couldn’t really breathe. I couldn’t wrestle at all.”
His coaches pulled him from the tournament and when he was examined further, doctors discovered he had an atrial flutter, an abnormal heart rhythm that occurs in the atria of the heart. A short while later, Starks was on an operating table in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Doctors went up through an artery in his leg and corrected the abnormal rhythm.
Within weeks, the senior from Midway, Ky., was back on the mat. So far, he is 19-1 this year, raising his career record to 98-22 and looking to return to the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association (EIWA) championships in March. The event serves as a qualifier for the NCAA tournament, and Starks has qualified in each of his past two seasons.
Last year, he qualified despite tearing the meniscus in his knee during the tournament.
“In the (EIWA) finals, what had happened was, my meniscus -- part of it had flipped over underneath my knee cap, and I couldn’t use my right leg,” he said. “That basically ended the season for me.”
Starks was a three-time state champion at Woodford County High School in Versailles, Ky. He said he never considered coming to an academy until he received recruiting letters from both Army and Navy. He chose West Point after he visited both academies.
“More the mentality of their midshipmen,” he said. “They weren’t as dedicated to service to their country like the cadets that I saw were. It seems like their main purpose there was like wrestling or school. It was all about what they could get out of it, whereas at West Point, it’s more like ‘what can I do for my country’ and they were all excited to serve. It was more selfless service here. That’s why I kind of fell in love with it.”
Starks said he was also influenced by the experiences of his grandfather Richard S. Starks, a B-17 pilot during World War II who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross after his bomber was attacked at 21,000 feet by dozens of enemy fighters on Aug. 21, 1942. The cockpit was raked by enemy fire and his co-pilot was fatally wounded.
The elder Starks was seriously wounded in the arm, neck and face. But he managed to direct the operation of the plane, and when able, assist in its operation until it landed safely.
“I think as a kid hearing that story and hearing about what he did in the military really kind of inspired me,” the younger Starks said.
Starks serves as the Brigade Command Sergeant Major at West Point. His position represents non-commissioned officers, and his role is to ensure the discipline, morale and welfare of the corps.
“I am not a big guy for yelling and really coming down on people,” he said. “I just kind of let them know what the standard is and explain to them why it is important. That is how my leadership style works and it’s usually pretty successful.”
Starks said he is looking forward for a return to the EIWA tournament and qualifying once again for the NCAA championships. Although those are goals, the senior said he tries not to think about them when he heads onto the mat.
“My goals are just to go out on the mat and wrestle hard and have fun,” he said. “By having those goals, that has given me the most success. I realize if I focus on the EIWAs or the NCAAs, I kind of get nervous and it kind of keeps me from wrestling. Every time I walk out on the mat, my thoughts aren’t on winning. They’re just on going out there and wrestling as hard as I can and having fun. Those are my two goals for the rest of the year.”