Looking for a winter sport to try after football season, Marlaco Bethune turned to wrestling. Little did he know, joining the Portland–South Portland co-op high school team would be one of the best decisions he’d make.
Then a sophomore, Bethune figured the movements he’d learn in wrestling would translate to the gridiron. His reasoning resulted in an overwhelmingly positive experience for the now 18-year-old senior. Bethune, who is deaf, is an inspiration to his teammates and coaches and a trailblazer for his peers in the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. His presence instilled confidence in two other deaf students, both freshmen, to join the program this year.
“When I first started wrestling I had no idea what to expect, and going through this process and experience has given me goals, drive and the ability to persevere,” Bethune said through his interpreter, Brian Dietzel. “It’s kind of made me who I am.
“I just try to bring everyone together so they realize that there aren’t that many differences, and with an interpreter, you can be as big a part of the team as you want to be and that deafness doesn’t matter.”
Dietzel, an educational technician at East End Elementary School, is key to Bethune’s wrestling experience. Dietzel worked with Bethune back when the latter was in elementary school. When Bethune joined the Portland football team as a freshman, Dietzel accompanied him as his interpreter. Bethune enjoyed football and wanted to take part in another sport. Dietzel suggested wrestling, the sport he competed in during his high school and college days, and one many Bulldogs football players participated in.
“He took off with it and loved it ever since,” said Dietzel, who serves as an “honorary assistant” and interpreter for the program’s three deaf wrestlers. “If you’re willing to work hard and put in the time and effort you’re welcomed, and I think he really embraced that from the get go. It doesn’t matter how you are as a wrestler. What mattered is that he wanted to be a wrestler and be here.”
Bethune fell in love with wrestling as soon as he joined the team. He enjoyed it so much, in fact, that he dropped football and now trains for the sport year-round. He broke through early challenges, like learning the sport and figuring out a communication plan with coaches, and started winning matches in the 285-pound weight class during his first season on the team.
“I realized failure is part of life and part of the journey, and I told myself that I’m never going to quit no matter how hard it is,” Bethune said. “I just learned to have pride in myself and what I do. It’s just been my goal to keep on doing it and improving.”
During matches, coaches can stand in a specific spot and yell out directions. In the case of Bethune and the two other deaf wrestlers, Dietzel shadows them across the ring, relaying head coach Ted Banks’ messages.
“That really helps me and makes me feel like I know what I’m doing, I fit in and there’s no guesswork involved,” Bethune said.
Banks, the team’s first-year head coach, served as an assistant last year. He said coaching a team with deaf wrestlers has made him a better coach and person, which can be credited in part to Bethune.
“This is an opportunity for him that he didn’t really have before, and he’s really taken control and I help foster that,” Banks said. “He definitely has some social clout. People like to follow him — like, this is what Marlaco’s doing so come try it.”
Finnian O’Donnell, a senior captain on the team who goes to South Portland, described Bethune as relentlessly positive. While most of his teammates do not know sign language, Bethune and O’Donnell discovered an easy way to communicate. During a bus ride home from a match last season, O’Donnell and Bethune sat together on the bus and texted each other back and forth via Snapchat.
“You’ll find a friend in him even if you don’t know him,” O’Donnell said. “Honestly, it’s really motivational to see what Marlaco’s done. He’s just improved so much. If he can do it, anyone can.”
Bethune’s accomplishments span beyond wrestling. He received the 2021 Commission for the Deaf, Hard of Hearing and Late Deafened Citizenship Youth Award in 2021, and this past summer, traveled to the NAD Youth Leadership Camp in Slayton, Oregon for a four-week intensive outdoors-based educational program with 63 other deaf and hard of hearing high school-aged students around the country.
That leadership took form in Bethune, who worked to get more deaf students into wrestling this year. He takes pride in helping his peers along and serving as a connector between teammates of all abilities.
“I can show them the ropes so that they don’t go through the same struggles I had,” Bethune said. “I can be that role model for them and include them so they don’t have to feel that awkwardness.”
Greg Levinsky is a Portland native and follower of local sports. He is an alumnus of Deering High School and Boston University whose work has appeared in The Boston Globe, Detroit Free Press, and several Maine newspapers. He can be reached at [email protected].