Before his matches, Davenport West wrestler Randy Cook-McPhee thinks about those he is wrestling for - his friends, his teammates and his family.

Once the action starts, two of his biggest strengths are being able to think on his feet and remain calm under pressure. Those traits have saved him numerous times in matches, but in August, it saved something much more important: his mother's life.

Cook-McPhee used quick thinking and quick actions when his mother, Gina VanDeWalle, caught fire in an accident with a firepot. VanDeWalle was badly burned and is currently struggling to return to a normal life.

Cook-McPhee had the presence of mind to wrap his mother in his shirt, smothering the flames, even though looking back, it was more of a reaction.

"It was just being scared pretty much," he said.

The incident

VanDeWalle was badly burned Aug. 28 when a firepot she was using for the first time shot a fireball at her chest during an explosion at at a friend's Rock Island home.

"I'm going to die!" VanDeWalle yelled.

"You're not going to die," Cook-McPhee said. "I won't let you."

He took off his shirt and wrapped it around his mother, smothering the flames. VanDeWalle's second- and third-degree burns covered 20 percent of her body. In a Sept. 2 story in the Quad-City Times, VanDeWalle credited her son with rescuing her.

"He saved his mother's life," she said. "Another 10 seconds, I could have been dead."

Growing up

Cook-McPhee was named after VanDeWalle's father and spent much of his youth hanging around and idolizing him. VanDeWalle described her son as someone with a kind heart, someone who is a happy, energetic child and a friend to everyone. He came to live with her two years ago after living with his father in Florida.

"He doesn't want to lie to anybody, doesn't want to hurt anybody's feelings," VanDeWalle said. "He's always done well in school and excellent in his sports."

It came as no surprise to her that he was the one to rescue her.

"I would say any of my kids would have done it, but I definitely am not surprised and I'm very grateful to him," VanDeWalle said.

West wrestling coach Chris Heilman said his junior 132-pounder is light-hearted in practice, cracking jokes to balance the intensity of long sessions in a hot room.

"It's kind of nice for me because if I'm in a bad mood or something isn't going right during the day, he'll bring the mood up in the wrestling room," Heilman said.

Cook-McPhee and VanDeWalle sometimes spend hours talking after he returns from wrestling practice. He still maintains his teenage social life, but is certain to carve out time to spend with his mother.

Since the fire, he has taken more of a responsibility with his younger siblings, making sure they are getting done what they need to and lecturing them when they don't. The change has been subtle, but not lost on him.

"I felt the shift," Cook-McPhee said. "We've always been a close family, but after this happened, we all got pretty tight."

The wrestler

As pleasant as he is off the mat, Cook-McPhee can be intense on it. Last season, he qualified for state. This year, he has his sights set on placing in the top six in Des Moines.

"I want to place as high as I can and just get my name out there," he said. "I'm getting some letters in now, but I want to get some bigger colleges. I just want to see what I can do and see what kind of offers come in."

Cook-McPhee has been wrestling since the fifth grade. At first, VanDeWalle was reluctant to let him compete, but quickly found out he had a knack for winning. At his first meet, VanDeWalle had thoughts of coming to the aid of her son, but he wasn't the one in trouble.

"Randy had him all wrapped up and I went, ‘Randy let him go,'" VanDeWalle said, smiling and laughing at the memory. "I was scared he was going to hurt the kid. It's been a great sport for him."

His success, both on the mat and dealing with the fallout of what happened to his mother make his goals at state reasonable in the eyes of his coach, who describes Cook-McPhee as mature for his age.

"He's handled it extremely well," Heilman said. "He's still the same happy-go-lucky type of guy. I haven't seen much of a huge mood change in him. Because he's handled it so well, I've kept my expectations high on him, whether it's academics or wrestling. He's not acting any different so I'm not treating him any different."

The road ahead

VanDeWalle's recuperation has been tough mentally on her son. Early in the process, he was reluctant and unsure of what to do to help his mother, but eventually began to find his role.

"At first, I was kind of scared to hurt her or touch her or anything," Cook-McPhee said. "But I was always there. But then, seeing other people helping her out and physically helping her, that's when I started to get involved. I tried to be there as much as I can."

VanDeWalle's injuries extend from her left hand, up her left side to her neck and cheek and across her chest. She is unable to lift her left arm more than a few degrees. Lifting her head is extremely painful so she can't be out of bed for more than a few hours. She once attended every one of her son's meets, but she now has to pick and choose based on location and duration.

Her voice still is weak. When asked if she no longer has to raise her voice for someone to take out the trash at home, VanDeWalle attempted to demonstrate only to produce a squeak.

"When I raise my voice, you can't hear me," she said, laughing. "That's their favorite part."

The future is unclear for VanDeWalle and her children. She has not worked since the incident and travels twice a week to Iowa City for therapy and goes there every other week to visit the clinic. When she isn't going to those places, she has physical therapy at her parents' home, where she now stays. Usually a friend will stop over to help.

She and Cook-McPhee never have returned to her friend's house where the fire took place.

Still, she plans on returning to a normal life and enjoying watching her son grow and mature.

"I'm going to continue to do what I need to get better," VanDeWalle said. "Randy is going to continue to be Randy and prepare for college."

 

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