Flickering, colored lights dance across the faces of the crowd as they scream, “Fiji, Fiji, Fiji." He walks out and lets out a roar. The crowd goes wild, the cheers echoing off the small gym walls.
But he hears none of it.
Not that it matters. Fiji runs through the crowd like a rock star right before the encore. His long dreadlocks bouncing off his wide shoulders as he screams with excitement.
In the ring, Fiji Widman is an independent wrestler. When he steps out, he is Andrew Meade, a Lancaster, Ky., resident who grew up with only 12 percent of his hearing.
After years of struggling to fit in, Meade found a home and the acceptance he had yearned for in a wrestling gym in Downtown Indianapolis. Now 27, Meade never lets his hearing impairment get in his way.
Meade wrestles two or three times a month. He never worried at the gym about his inability to hear. Rather, he worried about the men he would be working with worrying about it.
Tom VanZant, a fellow wrestler, wondered how he was going to work with Meade. VanZant was unsure how he would communicate with and teach Meade without Meade being able to hear.
“I found out he read lips,” VanZant said. “And now we work together all the time with no problem.”
Meade grew up as an only child in a small family. He didn’t know brotherhood until he found the men at this gym. While they often are his opponents, their passion for wrestling and determination to learn from one another helped the men to form deep bonds.
The men at the gym took Fiji in as one of their brothers. He is welcomed by hugs, butt slaps and arm punches.
Overcoming the loss
Meade, who lost his hearing at age 2 aftera high fever, first became interested in wrestling while watching WWE matches with his Uncle Curt.
When Meade was 3, he dreamed of being part of a tag-team duo with his uncle. His mom chuckled at the idea. The uncle would be too old by the time the toddler would turn 18. Three-year-old Meade didn’t care.
“He’s 6 foot 9, almost 300 pounds,” his mother recalled her son saying. “That would be the best wrestling team. Come on!”
As he grew up and got involved in other sports, his dreams of becoming a wrestler faded away. But when his uncle was diagnosed with cancer and later died in 2008, Meade realized how much he missed it.
Making a childhood dream a reality
In 2011, Meade attended a WWE event where someone handed him a flyer for a professional wrestling ring in Downtown Indianapolis. Soon after he took up training at the Wild Championship Wrestling Outlaws gym.
“That building is where, where I feel I was born again,” Meade said. “It made me feel whole.”
He now lives in Kentucky with his wife, Ashley, and 5-year-old daughter, Riley. Every other Friday, Meade takes the three-hour drive to the small, green gym Kentucky Avenue.
On stage, all eyes are on him. No one cares that he is hearing impaired. They just see him as a wrestler.
“I’m not in the dark. I’m not behind the curtains. I’m not behind someone else. I am upfront, doing a show,” Meade said. “Everybody is watching, cheering, dreaming.”
That's what inspires him most.
Meade often feels as though hearing people are afraid to approach him because they don’t know how to communicate with him. When he is wrestling, people aren’t afraid to come up to him and say hello. Fans line up to have Meade sign their hands.
“It’s not hard to say hi,” Meade said.” If you really want to learn, just come over and get a piece of paper and a pen. Write it down, just, ‘Hello, my name is.’”
He comes back for the love of the sport, the brotherhood, but mostly for the fans.
Meade hopes that he can be an inspiration for those who are disabled in anyway — a reminder that they can follow their dreams and accomplish anything they set their minds to.
Even if he can’t hear his fans, Meade knows that if they are really into his match, they will find a way to show him.
See the multimedia piece here: http://www.indystar.com/story/life/2016/08/14/wrestler-wins-silent-battle-everybody-watching-cheering-dreaming/88069388/