February 19, 2008

Wrestlers Wear Cauliflower Crown

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Anyone who’s spent a good amount of time around wrestlers knows what it is. It ranges in severity and spans the gradient from inconspicuous to dramatically arresting. Many wrestlers treat it as a point of pride, while an embarrassed few wish it would just disappear.
This is the reality of the infamous acquired deformity known as cauliflower ear. Common among combat sports enthusiasts, it can cause an athlete’s cartilage to fold and stretch, and Cornell wrestlers have not escaped their sport’s bizarre scourge. Even head coach Rob Koll sports the distinct look.
“We tell ourselves it’s a badge of honor,” Koll said. “My wife didn’t know it was part of the deal, though. But she’s grown to love it … at least that’s what I tell myself.”
According to medicine­net.com, the cauliflower ear phenomenon occurs as a result of blunt force trauma to the outer ear. The trauma separates the cartilage from the skin, which is the only avenue through which blood can flow to the cartilage. Similar to a bruise, the ear fills with fluid and starts to swell. Eventually, this fluid calcifies in the ear, creating the unique contortions of the cartilage.
“In college, we would tell people a guy [with cauliflower ear] was a leper,” Koll said.
The number one way to prevent this injury is to wear protective headgear at all times, not just during competition when it is required (for amateurs). [img_assist|nid=27967|title=Cauliflower power|desc=Wrestling head coach Rob Koll (right), along with many of his players, proudly displays his cauliflower ear as a “badge of honor.”|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
Koll said that he developed his injury after graduation from college when he spent some time wrestling in and around Europe, where headgear is not required. In fact, headgear is looked at as a disadvantage in many countries where it is legal to grab on it in order to get an advantage.
“You don’t wear them,” Koll said, “because you don’t want to get your head ripped off.”
Ice and compression can help decrease the damage to an ear that has recently suffered trauma from scarring, and transforming its shape permanently. If needed, doctors are able to drain the fluid as well, to stop the swelling. Koll said he made do with the resources he had available to him while traveling internationally in sometimes very unfamiliar regions.
“I used to carry a syringe with me,” he said. “I would drain my own ears — not something a doctor would probably recommend. After a while [the ear] gets incredibly sensitive.”
Junior captain Jordan Leen said he first developed his case of cauliflower ear the summer after his freshman year in high school. Ever since then it has continued to worsen, although it no longer hurts.
“It’s like calluses that gradually grow bigger on your hands,” he said.
Leen takes a practical approach to what some might call a physical flaw.
“By no means do people grow up and say they want huge, hideous ears,” he said. “But it’s like a battle wound, it sort of comes with the territory.”
Leen explained people who aren’t around wrestlers frequently have a hard time comprehending the occasionally shocking anatomical discrepancy.
“I usually tell people who don’t know a lot about wrestling that it’s just a birth defect,” he said.
The reality is that this explanation is simply easier for many to stomach.
Koll said that he likes his ears just the way they are.
“[They’re] pretty intimidating,” he said. “I like it. It’s a mark of distinction.”
It’s also a way for wrestlers to identify one another outside of the arena. Freshman Justin Kerber said that the damage to his ears is far less extreme than some of his teammates’. But even Kerber has had individuals approach him and ask if he was a wrestler only to discover the person posing the question was a wrestler himself who was able to put two and two together.
Kerber feels that he has found the middle ground with his ears. They exhibit just enough characteristics to be noticeable to people who know what to look for, but not the casual observer.
“[Fellow wrestlers] give me bonus points,” Kerber said. “I’m walking that fine line.”
Some wrestlers have resorted to plastic surgery in order to reverse the effects of the calcification, but Leen and Koll look down on that option.
“I don’t know why [someone would do that],” Koll said. “You worked so hard to get it. I wouldn’t have it fixed if I could.”
“That’s kind of the prima donna thing to do,” Leen said.
One wrestler who they might make an exception for, however, is freshman D.J. Meagher.
“I think that D.J. needs to be careful with his ears if he wants to pursue his modeling career,” Kerber said, laughing. “He’s very pretty. He’s about the only guy on our team who could worry about his looks.”