COLUMBIA, Mo. — Ethan Karsten found the old wrestling shoes in a closet, probably while also still searching for understanding.
The Platte County senior packed the black and red ASICS away in his bag and took them to this past weekend’s Missouri State Wrestling Championships for the most difficult tournament of his life. They were worn, unused in recent years, and size 10½. Karsten normally wears 9½, but he wore them anyway for all four of his state matches, which lasted a total of about 8 minutes and all ended with victories by pin.
“They’re my brother’s,” explained Karsten, pointing down at the shoes while sitting in the concourse of Mizzou Arena just minutes removed from becoming the fourth wrestler in Platte County’s storied history to win three individual state titles. “You should feel them. They’re pretty (expletive) big.”
Jourdan Karsten, 20, unexpectedly died on Sunday, Feb. 14 — four days before the start of Ethan’s final high school tournament, one day after he claimed a second straight Class 3 District 4 championship.
Teammates during their freshman season, Ethan and Jourdan were close. The Karsten family lives for wrestling season, including younger sister Eryn — a junior and one of Platte County’s team managers. Jourdan qualified for state as a senior in 2013, while his younger brother placed sixth at 132 that year when he “wasn’t very good,” as he once told the Platte County Board of Education while speaking to wrestling’s importance in his life.
Karsten had to wrestle.
So with mourning in progress, the whole family traveled to Columbia, hoping to watch Ethan cap his career with one more state championship despite dealing with the grief. The team rallied around him, and Karsten did not disappoint.
The brash sophomore who upset a three-time defending state champion in his second state tournament developed into an All-American, one of the best in the state. His teammates couldn’t understand his personal struggle, but they could appreciate what he went through to win a third title as the only wrestler to pin his way through the state.
Being around teammates — his other family — during the trip to state allowed him to smile and laugh for the first time since he learned of Jourdan’s death.
“There’s really nothing we could say. We just tried to get his mind off of it,” said Matthew Schmitt, Ethan’s senior teammate and lifelong friend who also won his third state title this past weekend. “No words can describe what he’s going through right now. I’m very sorry for his loss and his family’s loss, but being around us, he’s the same old Ethan. There were a couple moments where he was sad, but he overcame it.
“How could you not be (impressed)? Look at what the kid did. He dominated everyone, and he did not go backward one moment. That’s probably the best state tournament a kid could have.”
Karsten did come out noticeably stoic but brutal in his first two state matches, impressive considering his already aggressive style.
The first two opponents in the 145-pound bracket couldn’t last more than a minute combined, while officials warned him during and after both matches to watch the seemingly egregious ferocity. The approach gave a little insight into Karsten’s state of mind and how he handled the competing emotions of his situation.
“I didn’t,” he explained. “I came down here and I cried myself to sleep every night and woke up and wrestled pissed off and angry and it worked out.”
In the semifinals, Karsten faced off with No. 2 ranked Josh Franek of Pacific, a state finalist a year ago. Karsten dominated the match and worked to finish with a pin, which came in the third period of what would be his longest match of the three-day tournament.
About 24 hours after that win, Karsten prepared to take the mat for the final time in his high school career.
“Right before our match, we both looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s get it. Let’s end our senior year out together,’” said Park Hill senior Sean Hosford, the Class 4 state champion at 145 who lost twice to Karsten this season in matchups of future teammates at the University of Missouri.
Karsten separated from Hosford but didn’t go to the mat alone.
The 145-pound finalists exited the tunnel through a fog of smoke with colorful lights dancing on the floor of a darkened arena. The music blared as spotlights twirled during introductions, but Karsten likely didn’t hear any of the commotion. He took a departure from his normal routine, kneeling at the edge of the mat with the toes of those black and red ASICS curling up with Karsten’s toes unable to reach that far to hold them down.
“Watch this,” he silently told Jourdan before springing up for the last match of his high school career just six days removed from his brother’s death.
Karsten dominated Carthage’s Markkel Moore, pinning him in the second period for the 191st victory of his career — second most in Platte County history. Although appearing more calm, almost at peace, the pain didn’t leave even for the 3 minutes, 9 seconds the Class 3 145-pound championship bout lasted.
“I just wrestled,” Karsten said.
After the match, Karsten pressed an index finger to his lips then repeatedly pointed both index fingers skyward in tribute to Jourdan. He then made his way through the tunnel and back into the crowd, sharing a moment of triumph and lingering anguish with his family.
Karsten completed his wrestling journey with a third state title, but the personal battle continues. He attended Jourdan’s funeral Wednesday.
The shoes were easy to find, hidden in plain sight. Finding understanding in the face of unexpected loss will continue beyond wrestling season.
What’s next for Karsten off the mat?
“I’m gonna go home, and I’m going to go to bed and hopefully it doesn’t hurt as much tomorrow,” he said.