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Saturday, Apr. 30, 2016

Iowa high school wrestling more than a sport; a way of life

Friday, December 26, 2008

I must begin with an appreciative nod to the Seattle Times' Craig Smith, who accepted a buyout earlier this week as the Times follows the nation-wide trend of downsizing its staff.

I met 'Sideline Smitty,' a 30-plus year veteran of prep sports coverage, for the first and only time the same week I accepted this job.

When I told him I was moving to Iowa, he recommended I read "Four Days to Glory" by Mark Kreidler - a story that chronicles current University of Iowa wrestlers Dan LeClere and Jay Borschel as they sought their fourth consecutive individual high school state titles in 2005.

In a 2007 column, Smitty wrote about how the book encouraged him to embark on a pilgrimage to learn more about the sport.

I ordered the book online as soon as I moved and it arrived a scant three weeks later. I read most of it in one night and it really helped me understand how big of a deal high school wrestling is in Iowa.

The book built to the crescendo of the state tournament and every wrestler, coach and parent I've spoken to says it's an indescribable experience.

"In what other organization or other sport can you get 11,000 people cheering for multiple athletes as you walk in?" Hinton coach Jan George asked me rhetorically about a month ago. "When you walk in the door and feel the heat of the humanity in there, wow. I'm tingling right now just thinking about it. That's how pumped up I get about my passion for wrestling. That's why I'm back in here - because I still have passion for the sport."

Perhaps his entire coaching career is based on a district tournament upset loss that cost him a trip to 'The Barn' in Des Moines while ranked third in his weight class in high school.

"I choked," he said. "I think that's what drives me. I knocked on the door but didn't open it and I don't want a kid to miss their opportunity to open that door. I know the pain it is when you don't make it.

"I think that's where wrestling is completely different than any other sport. Everyone knows what we go through to get where we are and I think that's what's really important about wrestling around this community. Everyone knows what we go through to do what we have to do. That's why we do it and that's why it's a special sport."

When I was growing up, there were certain schools we all knew were 'wrestling schools.' They tended to be in remote, rural locations where kids generally kept shotguns in their raised pickups.

We always figured wrestling was for strange guys who couldn't play basketball.

But in my short time in Iowa, I've witnessed how passionate and dedicated wrestlers are to their craft. Along with track and cross country, it's one of the truest events of sport: just two people, mano a mano for six minutes.

That can mentally drain a high school student and that's a major theme in Kreidler's book.

"Wrestling to me is the hardest sport in school," said Mike Weaver Sr., a former Kingsley-Pierson wrestler whose two sons currently wrestle for the Panthers. "It takes the most dedication. You gotta be in the best shape because it's you against the other guy for six minutes. If you lose, it's because you lost and that's hard on a guy."

It leads to a mutual respect among wrestlers that transcends the lines of club, school and even generation.

"There is (a mutual respect)," George said. "We know when we stand across (from each other) that (other) kid has earned his right to stand on that mat just like we have.

"As a coach, I know the other coach has earned his right to stand there and coach his kid just like me. I think that's where the respect is, because we do a lot that I think a lot of other coaches don't have to do. We are constantly training, 24-7. We're talking not only about wrestling maneuvers, but about how to make weight safely... Of course every sport is doing that, but at the same time, we're incorporating weight management, muscle management, academic management and wrestling skills management so I think there's a lot more entailed in wrestling than in a lot of other sports."

K-P assistant coach Tom Stauch (a fellow Beta Theta Pi brother from Iowa State) said the hard work is not unlike what military recruits and fraternity pledges undergo.

"People who go through basic training in the army or if they live in a fraternity and they go through all that hazing and so forth that kind of brings them together," he said. "If they've gone through the hard times, that kind of brings them together. (Wrestlers) share that. There is that bond."

I have found this all very enlightening. I guess no reporter ever stops learning.

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