Desert Ridge senior Joe Kisting stood across the wrestling mat from the Mesa High School wrestling program, not aware of what would happen after the meeting between captains for the dual match between both schools.
He turned to walk toward his seat along the socially distanced bench area for the Jaguars before he was called back to the center of the mat by Mesa coach David DiDomenico. It was there Kisting was met by his aunt, Becky Senske, who is his late mother’s twin sister. DiDominco presented a plush toy in a gift bag and hand-drawn poster of the two schools’ mascots fist-bumping. Drawn by wrestler Amaiya Brown, she and the rest of the Jackrabbit program signed it for Kisting.
“I think I told him how much I respected him and how strong he is for what he’s going through,” DiDomenico said. “I was, in a way, humbled by his acceptance. I just can’t imagine how he felt and for him to let me be a small part of the healing process, it was humbling.”
Kisting’s mother, Bethany, battled COVID-19 that turned into pneumonia in both of her lungs. She spent nearly five weeks in the hospital on a ventilator and in a medically induced coma.
Bethany died on Jan. 11, the day after she turned 54 years old. She had no preexisting conditions.
“She was my everything,” Kisting said. “She was my definition of kindness. There was nobody who treated me better than her. It taught me not to take time for granted. I just think about my younger siblings and how they had less time with her than I did.”
The match against Mesa was originally scheduled to take place on Wednesday, Jan. 27, the same day as Kisting’s 18th birthday and his mother’s funeral. But Desert Ridge coach Travis Jackson asked DiDomenico to push it back to Thursday. He obliged without hesitation.
“I just think coach DiDomenico is a class act, all of Mesa is,” Jackson said. “We’ve had three deaths within our wrestling family since November. It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions.”
A small funeral was held due to COVID-19 restrictions, which only allowed a few of Kisting’s teammates to attend the service.
Still, he said having them there as well as others who couldn’t attend supporting him is what has made his time with the program special.
“Each and every one of them knew my mom, she was special to them, too,” Kisting said. “It meant a lot for them to be there for me.”
Bethany started to feel sick in December when Kisting and his older brother flew back from Arkansas, where they went duck hunting with their father while he was on a business trip. When she picked them up from the airport, she was already coughing and feared she may have COVID-19.
In the days leading up to Bethany’s illness, Kisting said a few of his siblings had become ill. However, they tested negative for the virus. Even after his mother tested positive, the entire family, all seven others, continued to test negative. Kisting said nobody else showed symptoms.
His mother’s cough progressed to the point where he convinced her to go to the hospital out of precaution. She finally agreed. Kisting dropped of his mother at a hospital in Gilbert for treatment.
That ended up being the last time he was able to physically see her.
“I thought I would be able to pick her up later that night,” Kisting said. “I kept telling her it would be alright, but she had to be put on a ventilator to force oxygen into her. I was only able to FaceTime and talk to her on the phone.”
Kisting began wrestling before he enrolled at Desert Ridge his freshman year. As a junior, he started to fall out of love with the sport and was on the brink of quitting altogether.
Jackson encouraged him to stay with the program. But near the midway point of the season, Jackson said Kisting’s motivation suddenly reappeared. He became aware of the opportunities wrestling presented.
Despite missing some matches, Kisting qualified for the state tournament. With a renewed sense of urgency, he placed fourth overall in the 145-pound weight class.
Now a senior, he remains motivated to succeed on the mat. While he is still nursing the knee injury, he is eager to compete again in honor of his mother.
“I know she’s always going to be there with me,” Kisting said. “I told my mom I wanted to be a state champion in my weight class and she really believed I could do it. One thing she said before we couldn’t talk to her anymore was, ‘no matter what happens to me, I want you guys to continue with your life and to keep pursuing your goals and dreams.’
“Remembering her words and her advice, that is what she wants from me.”