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Wrestler wins state title with her late brother’s heart recipient watching

  • February 04, 2023

CORALVILLE, Iowa — Lilly Luft walked toward the interview area inside Xtream Arena on Friday night, fresh off winning a third consecutive state wrestling title, when her coach, Robert Pittman, called out for her to stop.

“I just need one more big hug,” Pittman said.

Luft, Charles City’s celebrated senior wrestler, broke into a smile and embraced her coach for one … two … three … no, six seconds, a mentor and a pupil sharing one final special moment on a night that was full of them.

“Thank you, Lilly,” Pittman said, holding back a tear (or six, probably). He repeated: “Thank you.”

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Luft capped her sensational high school wrestling career by winning another state title. At the first state wrestling tournament hosted by the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union, Luft was one of the stars, storming to first place at 130 pounds.

It was a business-as-usual approach for Luft: five wins with two early-round pins and three major decisions. She outscored her five opponents by a combined 31-1, capped by a 9-0 finals win over Vinton-Shellsburg’s Chloe Sanders.

Afterward, she pointed to the sky — a nod to her late brother, Logan, who died in an ATV accident in 2017, nearly six years ago. He is the reason she began this wrestling journey at all.

But here’s where a special night became even cooler.

After pointing to the sky, Luft signed her name on the IGHSAU commemorative bracket, then ran off the mat and into the Xtream Arena stands to meet her family, as well as Ember Henderson, a 13-year-old girl from Louisville, Ky.

After Logan died, as many as five individuals received organ donations from him, and many more received tissue donations, because of his healthy and active lifestyle. Henderson received Logan’s heart when she was seven years old.

“It felt like he was here with me tonight,” Luft said, “because she was here.”

Over the last few years, Luft and her family developed a friendship with Henderson. Luft discovered that Henderson has a lot of traits that remind her of her brother.

“They like a lot of the same things,” Luft said. “Army movies, camping, fishing — and those were all things that Logan loved so much.”

Luft and her family attempted to bring Henderson to Iowa to watch Luft wrestle during previous seasons, but Henderson’s health complications and the COVID-19 pandemic put the brakes on that idea. 

Another opportunity opened this week, so Henderson sat in the stands with Luft’s mom, Wendy, wearing a homemade “Luft Tuff” shirt. Luft was honored before the finals with a scholarship from the Iowa Bankers Association, and Henderson stood with the Luft family on the Xtream Arena floor. In between sessions, Henderson worked on various puzzle books.

Before his accident, Logan was a standout youth wrestler, and it was his experiences in the sport that sparked Lilly’s initial interest. But what started as a simple curiosity quickly blossomed into a full-on obsession.

“It was all for my brother,” Luft said afterward. “It’s not an easy sport, but I developed such a passion for it.”

Through Ember Henderson, part of Logan was in the building on Friday to witness yet another memorable accomplishment. If only Logan could be here in full to see that he helped fuel one of the best careers for an Iowa girl high school wrestler.

Luft is now one of four Iowa girls to have won three state wrestling titles. She joins Iowa Valley’s Millie Peach, Bettendorf’s Ella Schmit, and Decorah’s Naomi Simon, who also won on Friday night and could become Iowa’s first female four-timer next season.

Luft’s championship run this week capped a perfect senior season, a 40-0 record. She will graduate with a 125-6 career record, giving her the most individual wins in state history for a girl wrestler … for now, at least. More Iowa girls will soon lap that mark.

Luft has even taken her talents across the nation — she’s a 16U All-American, a place-winner at the U17 world team trials, a Super 32 finalist — and around the globe, finishing fourth at the Cadet beach wrestling world championships in 2021.

This is not the end of Luft’s wrestling career, either. She signed with the University of Iowa women’s wrestling program. She will be the third Iowa native on the roster, joining both Schmit and Felicity Taylor, a South Winneshiek graduate who’s now a four-time collegiate national finalist and recently took fifth at the U23 world championships.

“He was my drive to start,” Luft said of her brother, “but I think a lot of my goals and aspiration in this sport have changed a lot. I’m just so grateful for the opportunity. All glory be to God because He’s given me this amazing ability, and I could not be more grateful for that.”

This story will always start with Logan, but it now fully and completely belongs to Lilly Luft. Friday night was the end of this chapter — an all-time one at that, even by Iowa’s lofty wrestling standards. For that, we echo the words of coach Pittman.

Thank you, Lilly. Thank you.

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at@codygoodwin.

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