CABOT, Ark. — Gage Loar never really expected to love wrestling.
"At first, I joined just to see where it would go," he said.
But four years later, it's become his favorite sport. So much so that he quit football in 2019 to focus solely on wrestling. His goal this year? To become a state champion. Ranked as the top wrester in his weight class in the state, and boasting an 8-2 record, he's well on his way.
But it's not just his size or skill that sets him apart. Gage Loar is deaf.
"In a live match, I can't hear at all," said Loar.
He started to lose his hearing at the age of three. For his parents, the diagnosis was devastating.
"It was a lot to take," his dad, Jarrod Loar, admitted. "A lot of praying. He lost it very fast, so that qualified him for cochlear implants."
Gage Loar had surgery to place the cochlear implants when he was four. And while they help him detect and decipher sounds in every day life, he can't wear them for everything. Wrestling included. And he's completely deaf when he takes them off.
Loar joined the wrestling team as a freshman, and although he played football at the time, he was searching for something that would be a better fit.
"I could see where football was starting to cause me a little bit of problems," he said, "because the whole team heard the play or you would see it on the sideline. And comprehending it is a little harder for me. Because learning a word (for me) can take one to 200 times. For an individual person it can take one to three. So it just took a lot longer for me to learn plays and learn specific stuff when I felt like going to wrestling, it felt like more an individual sport and I could learn easier and depend on myself more than other people."
But the transition to wrestling wasn't seamless.
"We didn't know was how to coach him," said Cabot head wrestling coach Justin Turner, "it took a lot of him explaining to me, how many times he needed things to be told to him, how we could best serve him."
Even Loar was unsure of what he needed.
"At that time I didn't really know," he said. "I just told him that it took me a lot more to remember things. And we both had to figure it out as we went, because I never really faced that struggle."
Together they came up with a solution -- hand signals.
"Hand signals really helped," said Loar, "because we started learning that as he circled me around the match, he could circle the circle and just do a hand signal and that helped tremendously."
Day after day, year after year, the countless hours that Loar and the Cabot coaching staff have spent paid off, culminating in success in his final season.
"Therapy teachers, they're trained to deal with these special situations, but these coaches weren't," Loar acknowledge, "so it means a lot to me because not everyone could do it."
"He's an awesome kid. He's grown so much, as a young man, as a wrestler, I couldn't be more proud," Turner said, getting choked up with emotion when asked how proud he was of what Loar has been able to accomplish over the last four years. "His growth as an athlete, our growth as coaches, it's been a great journey. It's hard to quantify with words, because it's awesome to see where Gage is headed."