After suffering two ACL tears throughout his wrestling career, including one that cut the prior season short, Jaron Smith thought his days of rehab and pain were behind him when he got back on the mat for the 2018 Princeton Open.
Hungry to compete again, he advanced past the quarterfinals in his first tournament of the season for Maryland wrestling. But in that semifinal match, Smith’s opponent came down on his leg sideways after the Terp tried to fend off a takedown attempt. He heard a loud crack as a familiar pain coursed through his body — the same pain he had felt twice before.
Smith’s mind was filled with uncertainty about his wrestling future to come as he was told after that he’d completely torn his ACL and also had a partial tear in his MCL, which meant another surgery.
“It was really difficult at the moment,” Smith told Testudo Times. “How many times is this going to happen?”
Smith’s long line of injuries first began when he wrestled at Oakland Mills High School in Howard County, Maryland.
After completing his sophomore year, Smith wanted to train and compete as much as he could over the summer. His head coach, Bradley Howell wanted him to practice wrestling against the toughest competition, so he bet Smith that he wouldn’t take 20 losses in the offseason. The loser of the bet had to buy the winner a pack of beef jerky and write three things they respect about the other.
“Jaron did not know how to let off the gas pedal, he really pushed himself until his body broke,” Howell told Testudo Times. “Most athletes are inclined to give themselves a physical break. Jaron will push himself right through it, he won’t tolerate the rest.”
After all the nonstop training, Smith tore his ACL on day two of the Schoolboy National Duals in Florida.
“The first time I tore my ACL the uncertainty was like ‘Wow am I going to be able to wrestle the same, am I going to be able to wrestle again, how am I going to feel once I’m cleared, how long am I going to be out for?’ Seven months is a long time,” Smith said.
This injury put him out for the remainder of that summer and half of his junior year as Howell and his coaching staff tried to keep Smith out as long as possible so that his ACL could heal properly.
While recovering Smith would practice as much as he could with the team, but he had to be very careful about which exercises he participated in. Once he was back on the mat, Smith had just two weeks of competition before he won a Maryland state championship his junior year.
Smith went on to win another Maryland state championship his senior year. Though he and Howell took a different training approach than before.
“He fought back so hard and it was all worth it, and he went right into training and working for his senior year state championship,” Howell said. “But this time there was more focus on recognizing fatigue and training around that.”
While some coaches may have expressed hesitation, former Maryland head coach Kerry McCoy wasn’t worried about Smith’s prior injury while recruiting him in his senior year.
“He had just gotten over surgery, he had come back really quick and just jumped right back into wrestling,” McCoy told Testudo Times. “He didn’t milk it, he wanted to get right back to work. He had drive and determination.”
Smith’s collegiate wrestling career had an average start as he put together an overall record of 9-13 and a dual meet record of 5-7. He didn’t have any injuries that season — he would not be so lucky his sophomore year.
At his first tournament his sophomore year, Smith’s suffered a torn ligament in his thumb while competing. Although he knew his thumb was severely injured, he finished out the tournament 4-1, taking second place at the Southeast Open in the freshman/sophomore bracket at 184-pounds.
Smith decided to redshirt the remainder of the season to gain an extra year of eligibility.
“I decided I’m just gonna get surgery on this so I can have a truly healthy career,” Smith said. “I decided I’m gonna save my hand, be completely healthy, I’ll redshirt this year... Come back next year and have a five-year program.”
Smith was cleared towards the end of the season, so he was able to compete in freestyle tournaments. But his redshirt-sophomore year brought another season-ending injury.
After he placed fourth at the World’s Team Trial Tournament for freestyle in 2017, Smith’s left knee started bothering him again. A MRI confirmed that Smith had torn his ACL again, as well as his meniscus — both in his left knee. Smith was disappointed about his newest injury, but made the most out of it with a light heart.
“I was kind of impressed with myself,” Smith said. “I placed at a couple national tournaments with a torn ACL.”
Smith, eager to compete, did not let the injury stop him from wrestling just a few more times that season.
“I was like ‘I am going to have to get surgery anyways, it’s going to end my season, I am going to wrestle as many matches as I can before I get to that point,’” Smith said. “So much to my doctors dismay [Smith laughed] unfortunately. But I wrestled a few more matches.”
After wrestling three more matches, Smith needed crutches to walk around because the tears were getting worse. It was then that he decided to get surgery and officially sit out the rest of the season.
“He was one of the guys that showed a lot of promise his true freshman year, and him losing that [sophomore] year was unfortunate,” former teammate Youssif Hemida told Testudo Times. “Smith didn’t want people to feel sorry for him. He won’t play any role to make him feel sorry for him.”
Smith went through another extended rehab offseason to nurse his knee back to health. He spent a lot of that time trying to rebuild strength with the program’s trainer, Michael Ziemianski.
“Mike is one of the best trainers in the world,” Smith said. “He helped me everyday and made sure I would be healthy enough to wrestle to my fullest potential.”
Smith would do light exercises with Ziemianski and make sure his ACL was progressing in strength. He would also occasionally come into the practice room to work on light technique — but there was not too much to do with a torn ACL.
Despite all of Smith’s patience while healing off the mat, the outset of next season would only bring another severe injury at the Princeton Open.
The partial MCL tear made the process of healing his ACL much slower and more difficult, making this injury the longest to recover from.
Even though Ziemanski and Smith had gone through this rehabilitation experience before, it was crucial that Smith healed better than before so that the injury did not repeat the following year. Smith’s recovery process kept him from practicing for a while, but his competitive spirit remained with the team.
“He never wavered,” McCoy said. “He had to be away for a bit, but he was still around at practices and encouraging his teammates. As a leader and positive member of the program he never wavered during his injury time.”
“If I could describe Jaron with one word, it would be resilient,” said senior Josh Ugalde, a teammate of Smith’s since 2015. “Time and time again when he gets hurt you always see him get right back up. You see him in the training room putting in hours into making himself better.”
Even though Smith had injured his ACLs over-and-over again, he kept a positive mindset throughout each endeavor.
“The mission doesn’t change, [I] just have to wait a year,” Smith said after tearing his ACL at the Princeton Open. “The process gets easy when you’re familiar with it.”
Hemida noted that it was Smith’s first time competing since his previous injury and did not think it was the best move to have Smith wrestle.
“Maybe he shouldn’t have wrestled a full open tournament,” Hemida said. “There were lots of matches, and he didn’t want to aggravate it right away.”
After Smith’s rehabilitation process he was cleared at the end of the season, but he did not wrestle much in the offseason because his knee was still very “buggy.” Smith decided to go up a weight class because he hoped cutting less weight would help lower his chance of injury.
In September of this past season, Smith tried to start practicing again but his knee still bothered him. An MRI confirmed scar tissue was causing the pain. Once again Smith went under operation to completely heal his knee.
Ziemanski and Smith started small with stretches and light exercises that would slowly strengthen his muscles over time. The beginning of Smith’s rehab process would frustrate him the most because there was almost nothing physical he could do right after surgery.
A couple of months after his surgery, Smith’s knee would get strong enough to walk on, letting him do more “intense” workouts, such as lift with lighter weights and practice his stance-and-motion in the practice room. Ziemanski and Smith worked together to properly exercise his muscles without putting any extra strain that could cause Smith to re-tear his ligaments.
Whenever Smith was able to withstand more pressure on his knee, he would slightly increase the weights he was using and his time practicing on the mat. Eventually as time pressed on in the rehab process, Smith would be back to wrestling with his teammates and lifting at full strength.
It was a constant grind for Smith and he recognized how lucky he was to have Ziemanski there to help him figure it out along the way. By the time he had torn his ACL at the Princeton Open, Smith and Ziemanski both knew the arduous rehab that was ahead of them, but they knew that it had been done before and can be done again with hard work.
After sitting out a few matches and recovering from his scar tissue surgery, Smith led Maryland with four Big Ten dual wins this past season.
The 197-pounder posted an overall record of 12-9, a dual meet record of 9-5 and a record of 4-2 in Big Ten dual conference play — all of which are over .500. And he ranked second on the team in dual wins (9) and technical falls (2).
“It was great seeing him come back this year,” redshirt senior Jahi Jones said. “I know he loves it just as much as I do and just being able to share that love with him competing out there is something that I value and will value for the rest of my life.”
Smith placed third in the American University Round Robin in the beginning of the season, picking up two wins against American wrestlers, but had to medically forfeit the rest of the tournament due to a tweak in his knee.
Smith’s second dual win of the season was against Rutgers’ No. 14 Jordan Pagano on Dec. 7. Unranked and fresh off injury rehab, Smith wasted no time in the match as he pinned Pagano in a front headlock only 52 seconds into the first period to earn the upset.
Another big upset for Smith came against Northwestern’s No. 9 Lucas Davidson at the Terps’ Beauty and the Beast event on Feb. 16.
After starting the match down 2-1, Smith used a blast double to put Davidson right to his back and secure a pin late in the first period. Later that week, Smith was awarded Big Ten Wrestler of the Week — he is the third wrestler in program history to reach this achievement.
He also posted two separate four dual-match win streaks throughout the season. The was against Navy, Rutgers, Pittsburgh and Fresno State between December 6 and January 1, respectively. His second win streak, which contained three Big Ten victories, was against Indiana, Illinois, Northwestern and George Mason between January 26 and February 21.
Smith’s season came to an end when he went 0-2 at the Big Ten Championships, but he’ll be back in the fall for his sixth and final season with the Terps.
“He is a tough kid and I think he is discovering just how tough he is each day,” Clemsen said. “Each time he pushes through a mental barrier and a physical barrier he learns a little bit more about himself and discovers a little bit more about who he is and what he’s got inside of him.”