John Altieri was always supposed to make history this season, but this wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. Not with a badly injured and fragile shoulder, not after an empty season, not as part of a down-on-its-luck team.
It happened anyway. On Saturday, the Warwick Vets senior became just the fourth Rhode Island wrestler to win four state championships. The moment when he stood on the podium, holding a smile as a dozen flashbulbs went off, was a moment he always expected, even if the journey to it wasn’t.
That just made it better.
“Since my freshman year, I’ve been told I was going to be the next four-time winner,” Altieri said. “I kind of already felt like I was one before I was. This weekend, I said, ‘I need to prove it.’ I went and did that.”
It was not an easy thing to prove.
In January, Altieri dislocated his shoulder and suffered a partially torn labrum. He would need surgery, but that night in the emergency room, he made a vow.
He hasn’t had the surgery yet. The three-time state champion still had business to take care of. He circled March 1, the date of the state tournament, on his calendar and began an arduous rehab process.
“I knew nothing was going to hold me back,” Altieri said. “That was my mindset.”
It was an impressive way of thinking for a wrestler whose path had always been smooth.
As a freshman, he joined a veritable high school wrestling dream team. His first state title in 2011 was just one part of something much bigger than him. Vets won the team championship with a mountain of points that may never be matched.
“He came into a great, tight-knit group of guys that won the state championship,” said Vets head coach Brendan Friel, then an assistant.
It was a case of perfect timing. Not only did Altieri help his teammates secure the title, they helped him set the bar high. One of his fellow state champs that day was Mike Meyers, the Vets star who could easily be called the best in Rhode Island wrestling history. He won four state championships, too, becoming the third wrestler to do so.
In Altieri, Meyers saw the next one.
“Working with a kid like Mikey Meyers, John saw, ‘This is what I have to do to be the next four-time state champ,’” Friel said. “He’s been in constant contact with Mikey since his freshman year, doing whatever he needed to do. He wrestled as much as he could because that’s what Mikey did.”
Altieri won another championship as a sophomore, one of five Hurricanes to wear gold that day. He won again last year, along with two more of his teammates. This year would give Altieri his crowning moment.
And then, on a cold night in Cumberland, it almost ended.
“We had a conversation before the season and he said he was starting to feel the pressure of trying to be a four-time state champ,” Friel said. “Then the injury happened.”
Friel recalled Altieri telling him that night – in the emergency room, no less – that he would be back in time for the state tournament. Saying and doing it are two different things, as Altieri found out over the next few weeks. He had exactly 50 days before states, and he had to push it.
“It was hard,” he said. “It was a hard road back. I had to go through a lot of physical training. I never gave up though.”
He missed all of Vets’ remaining matches, spending his dream senior season on the bench, arm in a sling.
That was tough.
His team struggled. The Hurricanes are a shell of their former selves, caught in a down cycle of low numbers and little experience. Vets went 1-14 in dual meets. Meyers, his mentor, won his fourth state championship in storybook fashion, one chapter in the school’s greatest wrestling story. Altieri would have to win his in a much different landscape.
That was tough, too.
But none of it mattered.
Like Meyers – who injured his finger just before the state tournament his senior year – Altieri just had to keep going.
“They’ve got it,” Friel said. “They’ve got that one little thing – nothing’s going to stop them, nothing is going to keep them from getting to that level. Mikey had it. John had it. That’s what makes them special.”
In the moments after he won Saturday, Altieri was speechless. When he gathered himself, he shared hugs with family and friends. He chatted with Meyers – who’d been cheering him on – and with former Cranston West wrestler Shawn Giblin, another four-time champion.
He earned the tournament’s Outstanding Wrestler award then stood on the top step of the podium as Friel placed a medal around his neck. His school now boasts two members of Rhode Island wrestling’s most select club. It was a perfect end to a far-from-perfect season.
“It’s awesome,” Friel said. “Having Johnny do what he did in such a short time from Mikey, that’s a heck of a legacy to set.”
A competitor to the core, Altieri said he had a few regrets about his performance on the state tournament mats, a few things he could have improved.
“I always think I can wrestle better,” he said, “but I got the win.”
It could have been a better year, too.
But John Altieri got the win.
William Geoghegan is the sports editor at the Warwick Beacon. He can be reached at 732-3100 and email@example.com. Find him on Twitter @RhodyWill.