It’s taken me years to figure out why I’ve come to love the sport of wrestling.
Not the WWE variety; the “Olympic” style that concluded its high school season at the WIAA’s Mat Classic XXIV in the Tacoma Dome this past weekend.
Wrestling has been an acquired taste for me. There’s not much pretty about it: it doesn’t feature the ballet-like athleticism of high-level basketball, the explosive playmaking of football, the languid pace punctuated by feats of impossible speed and precision of baseball.
What’s to love about a sport that features equal parts blood, sweat, pain and the constant threat of heartbreak?
Wrestling is to high school sports as an offensive line is to football or distance running is to track. Often under-appreciated, it’s a crucible of physical training and mental sharpening that exposes the character of all who undertake it.
But it’s also unique in its isolation, even when surrounded by a crowd. For up to six minutes, life happens in the center of a 28-foot circle under a harsh light in front of friend and foe alike. One-on-one, no time outs unless blood flows, nowhere to hide. No teammates to help, or to blame later. The opponent, whether at your level something more resembling a force of nature, has to be dealt with one way or another.
Start with brute force, throw in a mix of tactics and add a unique mix of attitude and humility, and you end up with what chess would look like had it been invented by Navy Seals.
It can’t take a person without character and miraculously create an upstanding, fully-functional member of society. But if you don’t know what raw material you’re working with, throw a kid into the ring a few times. You’ll find out.
Wrestling seems to take that raw material, reshape it and harden it into something that can withstand all sorts of more imposing opponents than just another guy in a singlet.
Maybe that’s why the tears flow more freely in wrestling than other sports. Not only does it force you to take on an opponent, but to take on yourself, which usually is more difficult. There’s probably not a guy (or girl) out there that hasn’t had to push down the fear that screams at them to walk away, rather than take on the seemingly overwhelming foe in front of them. Taking down that opponent through strength, guile, or force of will, that is something to be proud of.
And when it goes the other way, when the opponent is stronger or smarter and you’re the one on your back or twisted into shapes that shouldn’t be possible, it’s OK to cry, as long as you’re ready to face the next opponent to stare across at you from center circle. Even if it’s the same one that just beat you.
I didn’t see all of this just by showing up at a wrestling meet, of course. It took time to see it, and to see how kids’ on-mat demeanor translates into life later on. Patterns develop. Life happens. People respond to life.
The dedicated wrestlers seem to have their own way of doing that.
There was a wrestling coach whose teams I covered through several insanely successful years –multiple team state titles, individual champions and medalists, you name it – but ran up against an unbeatable foe: pancreatic cancer. A death sentence. Whatever “expiration date” was decreed by his doctors, he far surpassed it. Not only did he fight to beat it, Craig Funsch kept on coaching, taking time off only when treatments made it physically impossible for him to make it to practice, sometimes finding his way to matches through crippling pain.
People don’t live for nearly three years with pancreatic cancer, as Craig did until just over a year ago. They certainly don’t coach with it. But he did it anyway, teaching high school kids how to face death even as its angel waited impatiently by the gym door, even as he was being set up for one last pin. Funsch, the consummate wrestler, was broken in body, but never beaten in spirit.
When my time comes to handle that kind of adversity, I can only hope to face it like a wrestler.