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Plant City man, former champion wrestler, drowns while boating in Lake Gibson

Time and again, Cornelius Wiggins worked through tragedy in his life.

A champion high school wrestler, he nearly quit the sport after his foster mother died. But he got back on the mat and won a second state title.

As a college freshman, Wiggins was in a car crash that killed a teammate and left him with a fractured skull, broken leg and blood clot in his brain. Advised to sit out a semester, he went right back to class instead.

"I didn't really care about the injuries," he told the Tampa Tribune in 2003. "In time they'll heal. … The main thing I was thinking about was I'm alive."

But Wiggins, 32, fell victim to tragedy Saturday evening when he drowned in a Polk County lake while out with two companions, said James Boogaerts, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman.

Wiggins, whom everyone called Corn, was riding in a 21-foot boat on Lake Gibson north of Lakeland when his sunglasses fell off his face into the water. He dove overboard to retrieve them.

One of his companions, 57-year-old Julie Bryant, whose family took Wiggins in after his foster mother died, threw him a floating cushion, Boogaerts said. Then she tried to save him herself.

"She jumped in, and she was unsuccessful," Boogaerts said. "He was underwater."

Search teams from the FWC, the Polk County Sheriff's Office and the Lakeland Police Department looked for Wiggins through Saturday evening and all day Sunday, locating his body about 7 p.m.

Fifteen years ago, Wiggins wrestled for Plant City High School. He won two state championships then went on to compete at Cumberland College in Kentucky.

His foster mother Lorine Coleman died of congestive heart failure his senior year in high school.

"I wasn't even going to wrestle at first," he told the St. Petersburg Times then. "But then I thought I could win another wrestling championship, and I know she would have wanted me to go on."

He started all four years in high school and finished with a 126-16 record.

The next year, Wiggins was out with teammates in Kentucky when a friend's Nissan Altima hydroplaned. The car slid across the median of Interstate 75 and crashed into a semitrailer truck. It killed his teammate, Ryan Sargent.

At the time, Wiggins' old high school coach marveled at his ability to bounce back.

"It's the kind of thing a kid can shut down from, feel sorry for himself," Mark Ackett told the Tribune then. But he didn't.

Wiggins later returned to Plant City, where he worked as a plumber, said Nicole Kaczmarek, 34, who called Corn her best friend.

He loved to spend time with her three kids, Kaczmarek said.

"He would just show up randomly, come over and get breakfast," she said.

Wiggins was always joking, she said. At 5-foot-5, he'd sometimes be mistaken for Kevin Hart, the actor and comedian.

He was what anyone would want in a friend, Kaczmarek said — supportive, attentive, charismatic. He played air guns with her kids and volunteered with her nonprofit every year.

She told him if she ever got married again, he'd have a big part in the wedding.

"I wouldn't have a maid of honor. I would have a man of honor, and it would be him," she said.

Wiggins' sister, Aerial Coleman, called him "a special man" and thanked the Bryant family in a Facebook post Monday. She said they "took Corn under their wing and into their home and loved him like a son, a brother, a nephew and a friend."

A GoFundMe campaign to establish a scholarship for future wrestlers in Wiggins' memory had raised more than $1,500 by Monday evening.

Contact Langston Taylor at Follow @langstonitaylor.