Thunder Bay wrestler overcame incredible hurdles on way to emotional win
By Nathan White
When the final whistle blew Sunday in Budapest to signal Jacob Luczak had won his first ever world championship match, he pumped his fist a little, and raised a single finger to the sky.
There were many times in his life that the Thunder Bay, Ont., native could not have imagined a world championship referee raising his arm in victory.
“As a kid you always have dreams, whether it’s going to world championships, playing in the NHL or if your passion is music or whatever. But I wouldn’t have imagined actually being here as a kid,” the 24-year-old Luczak said a few hours after his 12-6 win in the 92 kg qualification round against Austria’s Dominic Peter.
“To be on the senior national team and get a win at the world championships is just awesome.”
He couldn’t have imagined it last year, when he was “sitting in Regina,” having spent two years off wrestling with the University of Regina Cougars due to a concussion.
Then, he got the news that his father, Jacek Luczak, had been diagnosed with stomach cancer. Jacob, the youngest of six children, decided to move back home with his family. He spent many nights by his dad’s bedside, where an appearance at world championships seemed a world away.
Jacek and his wife Stanislawa escaped from communist Poland in the 1980s, and arrived in Thunder Bay in 1989 with their four oldest children, and a fifth on the way. Jacek worked as an electrician at first, then later started a hardwood flooring business that the family still owns and operates. He once told his youngest son, nicknamed “Kuba,” how proud he was to see their family name on the Canada singlet Jacob earned at the 2013 Junior Pan American Championships in Santiago, Chile.
“I brought that singlet to him the day before he died. There’s seams ripping and the name is peeling off the back and I said, ‘I’m going to earn some more for you,’ ” Jacob recalls.
Having only been back in training with Lakehead University for a few months, he didn’t know when.
“I didn’t imagine it would be these worlds,” he said. “Maybe next year, maybe years from now. Maybe I never would. But I had the feeling I needed to say that out loud in order to motivate myself and keep pursuing it.”
When he finished second at the Trials in July, he accepted that it wouldn’t be this year. But 18-year-old Hunter Lee of Saskatoon later declined the spot to focus on the Junior World Championships. Suddenly Luczak had about two months to raise $15,000 and train like he’d never trained before.
“All Thunder Bay came together to fund him,” said his mother Stanislawa, who goes by Stasia for short. “So many people, it was a really amazing thing. It makes you believe in humanity, when people believe in young people and sport and what that means for him.”
“Midway through I was like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ No one who’s grieving something just asks to add more stress to themselves. Not only was I emotionally taxed, but physically taxed and mentally taxed,” Jacob said. “No one understood me better than my dad.”
Luczak in Budapest
Jacob got all the way to Budapest, and still the night before his match he couldn’t imagine winning. Luczak was on his hotel room floor trying to roll “this awful knot” out of his back with a lacrosse ball. As his stress level and frustration continued to rise, he was missing his dad and decided to call on him for a little inspiration.
“It might sound morbid but I took a recording on my phone with my father the last couple of minutes he was alive. Just him breathing,” Luczak explained. “I said, ‘I’m going to use this when I really need it one day.’ I almost forgot about it completely. Just hearing him breathe and how hard he was working, my breath started following it a little bit.
“You watched your dad have the hardest battle with cancer for 11 months and he didn’t want to quit until the very last breath,” Luczak said to himself. “You think this back pain is going to hold you back from wrestling a man?”
Luczak said a feeling of peace came over him that got him through the night.
“It was really weird, I didn’t think it would work the way that it did. My heart wasn’t racing anymore, my breath was slow and controlled,” he said. “I just kept thinking about the image of my father and different memories of him rather than about wrestling.”
Tension started rising again Sunday morning as Luczak began his morning routine. He woke up and went to weigh in. On the way back he bumped into his mother on the streets of Budapest. Stasia had just flown in the night before to watch him.
“That was so amazing, so out of the world. I was walking from our B&B with my sister, it was raining, and just from nowhere Kuba was just in front of me. I said ‘My goodness!’ ” Stasia explained. “It was just fate or something.”
She almost didn’t make the trip. She and Jacek spent their honeymoon in Budapest 38 years ago, and she thought the memories might be too painful. But with the encouragement of family, many of whom still live in Europe and were able to attend the championships, she decided to go.
Stasia was there at the Papp Laszlo Sportarena Sunday to lead the family cheering section. Jacob saw his mother as he walked out for his match. He felt his father was there with him too.
“He’s giving me strength and truly his spirit is within me. I said, ‘Let’s go dad, let’s do this!’ out loud,” he said.
Luczak said the turning point of his win was when a challenge went his way, putting him up 6-2. From there he “felt very in control” and just had to make sure to avoid getting pinned.
As the referee raised his arm, over Luczak’s left shoulder a Canadian flag went up in the stands. Watching the webcast in the wee hours of the morning back home, several viewing parties dotting Thunder Bay noticed it was Stasia waving the flag.
“Having his hand raised at that moment, seeing him smiling and looking up to the heavens was a surreal moment. As dark as it was early in the morning here in Thunder Bay, there was a lot of yelling and screaming and tears,” said his oldest brother Filip. “Jacob was with us all those sleepless nights at the hospital with dad. It was very difficult but to see him rally as the youngest member of our family of six kids, the resilience, the focus, he’s been an inspiration to all of us. It’s incredible.”
As much as the win was a culmination of Luczak’s efforts, he also sees it as a first step.
“He has this urge, this desire to go farther, and I’m sure being in this class of wrestling will give him another boost to keep going,” Stasia said.
“It really drives me to move forward from here and improve,” Jacob said. “It just proves that my work and all the sacrifices that I make have been worth it.”
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