A will to battle back

After consulting with doctors and family, Cam Milliken returned to wrestle his junior season. Photo courtesy of Cam Milliken. 

As Castleton wrestler Cam Milliken stepped onto the mat last season against Johnson and Whales’ Dan McBrinn in the 157-pound division in Springfield, Massachusetts he was thinking about seeding high enough to qualify for Nationals.

Fifteen minutes later, he was thinking about his second surgery on his left shoulder in two years and fifth shoulder surgery in six years after suffering a torn labrum.

“I was pretty conscious of my shoulder the whole time because it had been giving me problems,” Milliken said. “(McBrinn) went to go sweep for the outside of my leg on the shoulder that was hurt and I went to go stop it and the pressure on my arm sort of forced the shoulder to go out of place.”

The 21 year old Millikin and his father, Scott, were no strangers to shoulder injuries at this point in Cam’s career. Scott, who was in the stands at the match, said the situation “wasn’t emotionally trying,” as he walked calmly down to the mat and proceeded to pop Cam’s shoulder back into place like he had done so many times before.

After four surgeries, he knew what his surgical options were, electing to receive a bone graft procedure rather than a “less-intense” anchoring of the labrum, he said.

According to the University of Washington Orthopedics and Sports Medicine website “the goal of the bone graft surgery is to build up the socket so that it provides more stability for the joint.”

In Millikin’s third surgery, bone from his right hip was shaved off and used on his right shoulder, while bone from his scapula was used on the most recent surgery of his left shoulder last year. Milliken now has a five-inch scar on the front of each shoulder just above the armpit, along with another four inch-scar on the front of each hip with another scar on his left shoulder blade.

According to Milliken, immediately after surgery the typical rehab process requires the patient to wear a sling for a month followed by three months of physical therapy, both at a facility with a trainer and exercises at home. After about four months, the patient is able to start working out and lifting and is usually fully cleared for activity at around six months from the initial labrum tear.

For Milliken, the rehab battle is just as much mental as it is physical.

“At the beginning of each rehab process you’re sort of down because you’re like, ‘all right, why am I doing this again? I’ve been through this a ton of times. Is it even worth doing it?’ And then toward the end, when you’re starting to feel better… you get a little more motivated to continue and keep going,” Milliken said.

Despite tearing his shoulder for the fifth time, the decision on his wrestling future was an easy one.

“He said he’d be back,” said head coach Scott Legacy about Milliken’s response to his injury last season.

Milliken, who is a junior accounting major, said he started wrestling when he was in the seventh grade because some of his friends had joined the team. In eighth grade is when Milliken said he fell in love with the sport. That same year, Milliken’s Albany Academy High School team needed a 103-pound wrestler and he was the guy to fill the slot.

“I moved up and all of the sudden something clicked. Wrestling started making more sense. I started to do better and I started to like it more,” Milliken said.

Scott Milliken also started wrestling at an early age and continued to compete for four years at Springfield College. He has also coached wrestling in the state of New York for more than 20 years.

Milliken tore his labrum for the first time in his right shoulder in April of 2012. He graduated from Albany Academy in 2014, wrestled at SUNY Oneonta for two years then briefly attended Hudson Valley Community College before coming to a first-year program at Castleton last season.

As he continued to compete, he had to learn how to protect his shoulders, Scott Milliken said. He added that recently he has seen his son stay more compact. And the Castleton coaching staff agreed with the elder Milliken about Cam’s improvement.

“He had to change his style of wrestling to prevent those types of injuries because he’s a very strong brawler type wrestler and that takes a toll on your body,” said assistant coach Steve Forrest.

This season, Milliken has a 13-7 record and looks to make a push up the rankings and contend for a spot in Nationals.

“He came to our wrestling camp this summer and he looked fit. He looked strong. He looked focused. He looked determined. So he did all of the right things to make his shoulders fit for the grind of the wrestling season.” Legacy said.

Although prepared with the physical challenges that come with a history of shoulder injuries, Millikin, his father and the rest of the Milliken family aren’t completely numb to the emotion of the situation.

“As a dad, when you see your kid in pain that’s hard, but when you see their dreams broken, that’s heartbreaking,” said Scott Milliken.

His son’s lowest moment throughout his entire span of injuries he said was his most recent injury at Springfield College. Milliken was ranked sixth in the conference competing against fifth-ranked McBrinn when he got injured. The top three move on to the National Championships.

“I felt like I had a real shot to pull out some upsets that year and make a run but I never really got the opportunity to,” Milliken said.

What keeps Milliken going after enduring so much adversity?

“That success is really the addictive part of wrestling. Just getting your hand raised in the middle of the circle. That’s what keeps you coming back,” Milliken said

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