As a recovering cynic, I love to hear stories about people who do truly beneficial work simply because they understand their own abilities and believe in themselves. I need to know there are people so strong and resourceful that they do their work no matter what, just because they can. People who have real power and put it to good use. And because there may be others like me who need to hear such stories, I want to tell one.
Four years ago I knew next to nothing about wrestling. Real wrestling. I had seen wrestling in the Olympics on TV and I knew some high schools and colleges had teams, but I had never been to a match in person. The sport of wrestling had an aura of primal honesty and sportsmanship that I liked, but I never really thought much about it and could not have told you why it felt that way. Perhaps the caricature of fake Sunday afternoon wrestling, which was so blatantly phony and demonstrated no real contest but begged for attention, stood as the obvious counterpoint and everybody recognized the difference. But as I said, I never attended a real wrestling competition and spent very little time thinking about anything even related to wrestling. Now, four years later, I still have to say I don’t know a lot about wrestling. However, I have been to a real wrestling competition (several, in fact) and have witnessed one of the most amazing displays of strength, commitment, dedication and hard work I have ever seen personally. Not from the wrestlers, though they made their own amazing displays, but from the elders of the wrestling community who administer the meets, referee the matches, and train young wrestlers to compete at their absolute maximum level of physical and mental strength while being courageous, respectful and dignified. And believe me, they don’t do it for the money. They do it because it makes people stronger and smarter and they know how.
My son attends a public high school with many athletic facilities and I assumed that all sports were coached by teachers on the faculty … that’s how it worked when I was in high school. So when he decided to go out for wrestling in the 9th grade, I took his coaching for granted and gave no thought at all to what was entailed with the meets. Being a good tax-payer, I assumed that the school system provided these things. As time went on, however, I attended the meets and dropped in on a couple of practices and I realized how much time and effort the coaches were putting in beyond normal school hours. Then I found out school hours didn’t really matter much because these guys were doing their regular jobs during school hours and coming for afternoon practice having already worked a full day, staying in the gym sometimes until 7:30, often getting paid nothing. For the dual-meets on Thursday they were with the team from 3 in the afternoon until 9 that night. On Saturdays (and sometimes Fridays as well) they showed up at 5:30 in the morning, drove the team hundreds of miles in their own vehicles, coached all day at the tournaments, and brought the wrestlers home late at night. These coaches have families of their own and jobs and homes to take care of, yet they managed to keep this schedule for months on end, from November until March, year after year. I met coaches from other teams who spend more time and travel much farther with their teams than my son’s coaches do. It was difficult for me to accept at first, and a little humbling. If they were merely baby-sitting for this much time, keeping the kids off the street, they would be doing a heroic job, but in fact they were doing much more. They were mentoring.
It took a year or two before I really started to see how wrestling was affecting the kids who participated, and to understand why this was happening. Invariably, every wrestler I saw gained self-confidence, became more open and accepting of the strengths and weaknesses of others and of their own, improved their overall health and vitality, got a lot stronger and more agile, and realized they had limits but that these limits could be expanded. Every wrestler faced competition with no place to hide and no one to help while everyone watched and they ALL accepted the outcome with dignity and honor. Win or lose. They learned to respect their opponents and appreciate their abilities no matter who came out on top . They honored one another and they learned teamwork. I was astonished. Even the kids who tried for a while and decided to spend their time on other pursuits left the mat stronger than when they got on and I truly believe they will always remember wrestling with fondness and a sense of having done something essential, having made real contact with other people. Then it hit me that the coaches, referees and officials had known about this for years and understood how powerful this sport was and wanted to be a part of it just because it made people better. I’m sure every sport develops many of the same attributes but there is something so personal and intimate about wrestling that it brings out the deepest responses rooted in mutual respect. The coaches are compelled to use their knowledge because they have seen the beneficial results of their actions. I imagine at times they must have felt a little cursed by the sacrifices they had to make, but they did it. They got down on the mat and made contact so they were respected by the kids and respected the kids in return and taught them how to use their bodies and their brains. The referees stood proudly erect, nimble and sagacious, demanding good sportsmanship and maintaining integrity while limiting injuries and dispensing justice. The meet officials efficiently organized and scored thousands of matches involving thousands of wrestlers with fair and honest seedings in safe and accommodating gymnasiums. There was constant dialogue on all levels, and the only complaining I ever heard was from coaches sticking up for their athletes.
This year – my son’s senior year - I saw the final results all this teaching and hard work. The older kids became leaders, standing confidently and comfortably among the younger ones who are accepting their limitations but also realizing their potential. There is very little fear in any of them. Every one knows they can be beaten fairly and squarely, but they also know without a doubt that they can defend themselves mightily and they understand that when they get stronger and smarter they will do even better. They can win. Not only are their wrestling skills improving but I have noticed that every kid is becoming more tolerant and accepting of the differences between people and has realized that internal strength comes from many sources. Everyone has something to teach and everyone has something to learn. Wrestling provides the most diverse cross-section of gender, ethnicity, socio-economic backgrounds, and life-styles found in any high school sport I know of. Finally, I saw supreme achievement that came from dedication to a goal, hard work, courage and valor. I saw a bond among people which allowed them all to share in those achievements and truly appreciate every individual involved. The wrestlers were great. And so were the elders, wrestling giants, all of them.
So, what about the future? Will this incredible sport continue to inspire and strengthen thousands of kids every year? Will it be able to remain a bastion of integrity and sportsmanship, honorable and fair? Will the elders keep on giving freely of their time just because they know what benefits they create? My guess is the answer to all three questions is yes, thank goodness. After all, the sport of wrestling has been around for thousands of years without television and corporate sponsorships. I am letting go of my cynicism, holding tightly to the belief that strong and wise people will continue to be strong and wise, that they will get enough reward seeing the results of their work that they won’t stop no matter what. But nothing should be taken for granted. Remember, Atlas Shrugged. Removing wrestling from the Olympics might make sense on paper, yet I can’t help feeling that something essential will be missing … something vital and pure and inspirational that might not come from anywhere else. I know wrestling isn’t for everyone, participants and spectators alike, but removing it from the Olympics undermines the wrestling community. These people and this sport should be supported. There should be a place at the highest level of athletics for honoring and ennobling virtues which don’t necessarily have great commercial appeal. And I am disturbed by watching how commercial forces are perverting the sport of wrestling into a grotesque gladiatorial spectacle which assumes the basic forms and positions of wrestling while filling the time between sporadic outbursts of wanton stupid violence intended to maim another human being. Call them Ultimate Fighters if you like, but they demonstrate none of the strength, skill, or intelligence I see every time real wrestlers meet at the center of the mat. Let’s hope I’m right about the future and don’t find myself back among the cynics.