Monday, July 28, 2008


No wait – that isn’t what I’m writing about – jeez!

No – I’m writing about Iowans in Fargo.

No that’s not right either. C’mon, Jim, get it together.

Saturday morning, after three days of wrestling, Team Iowa won the team title at the National Junior Freestyle Wrestling Championships – commonly called, “Fargo” (anyone wanna guess why?). Iowa crowned two champions, had two other finalists and a total of thirteen All-Americans.

According to one published report it has been 21 years since a team from Iowa won this championship. Coincidentally, that’s the same number of NCAA wrestling championships won by the University of Iowa Hawkeyes.

By all accounts the match of the championships did not occur in the finals. It happened in round seven when 2007 125 pound freestyle champion, Nate Moore of Iowa, faced 2008 Junior Greco Roman champ, Eric Grajales of Brandon, FL at 130 pounds. In what most observers have called the best junior freestyle match in the past five or six years, Moore won 7-4, 6-7, 4-2. Nate went on to win his second national junior championship with a first period fall in the finals. He was also named Outstanding Wrestler of the event.

Many of these young Iowa wrestlers will be toiling in NCAA Division I wrestling rooms next season. Heavyweight champion Eric Thompson and 215 pound runner-up Byron Tate will be wrestling for Cael Sanderson at Iowa State. Fourth-place finisher, Josh Ihnen, is headed to the University of Nebraska and and fifth place finisher Alec Hoffman will be a UNI Panther. Third place finishers, Matt McDonough and Grant Gambrall will join Moore as Iowa Hawkeyes. Some of the younger members of the team will be among the most sought after recruits in the next class.

High school wrestling fans generally view Fargo as the ultimate championship for interscholastic grapplers. However, is a strong performance at Fargo always a harbinger of future intercollegiate success? Of the 150 NCAA Division I individual champs in the past 15 years, 79 have won at least one junior freestyle or Greco Roman championship. Look for these young Iowans to be scoring NCAA points for the schools of their choice in the next two or three years.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Breaking down barriers

In several ways, fourteen-year-old Karissa Avallone of Newkirk, Oklahoma is like many other teen-age girls in America. She is a varsity cheerleader, active in her church youth group and competes in beauty pageants. What distinguishes Karissa?
She wrestles. OH MY – how she wrestles!

Karissa is a two-time United States Girls Wrestling Association National Champion including being the reigning Middle School 94 pound title holder.

Karissa doesn’t always wrestle other girls. Her interscholastic wrestling has been as a member of, first, her middle school boy’s team and now her high school boy’s team. According to her dad, Tony, it started when she walked into the wrestling room after soccer practice to watch her brother. Says Karissa, “It looked like fun.”

It hasn’t been easy. Tony says, “… she was 6 and just getting her tail whooped by the boys but she just kept coming back for more. She won maybe three matches in her first three years of wrestling.” There have been other challenges. She has been teased because she wrestles. “I have been called names, and one boy told me to go home and bake some cookies.”

Karissa is among 5,000+ girls who will wrestle in high school this year – compared to over 250,000 boys. Almost half of the girls participating are in Texas and Hawaii – states with separate championships for girls and in California, which has girls only competitions but no state championship yet. Most of the rest must belong to boy’s teams if the wish to participate in “the world’s oldest and greatest sport”.

In a highly unscientific poll I asked a dozen parents of girls if they would encourage their daughters to wrestle. Eight of the parents have sons who wrestle. NOT ONE respondent said yes – if girls had to wrestle boys in order to participate. Four said they would let their daughters try wrestling if there was “girls only” competition.

One of the poll participants was my youngest daughter. She has a second-degree brown belt in Tae Kwon Do, so she is definitely not against girls (women) in martial arts. She, too, objected to the co-ed competition, but also raised weight control as an issue. Three other parents (moms) also mentioned weight control as a negative.

Many internet discussions of Title IX will suggest adding women’s varsity intercollegiate wrestling as a way to offer new athletic opportunities and as a way to comply with proportionality guidelines. This argument may well be putting two carts before the horse.

Troy Dannen is the new athletic director at the University of Northern Iowa – a school with a rich wrestling heritage that includes an NCAA Division I national team title. Prior to his hiring at UNI, he was executive director of the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union. He has a unique perspective on what it would take to add a women’s wrestling team.

I first asked Mr. Dannen, why a state like Iowa – with strong traditions in both wrestling and girl’s athletic opportunities did not offer “girls-only” wrestling.

“The thing you’ll find at the HS level is the creation of new sports is completely driven by the grass roots. We added soccer and bowling in Iowa the last ten years and neither were initially welcomed by the schools or even supported at the state level… In my six years as director of the IGHSAU I received one email asking us to sanction girls wrestling. I received dozens asking us to sanction gymnastics, rodeo – even field hockey. If girl’s wrestling is going to be a stand alone sport, its supporters cannot wait for that chance, they have to pursue it.”

His comments about adding women’s wrestling at UNI were very similar. “At UNI, we have to increase female opportunities. While wrestling would seem logical, the latest surveys of student interest don’t show a desire (for) wrestling. That is likely in some part due to the fact that they haven’t experienced it at the high school level…the key is the grass roots – kids and parents pushing the schools, who will then push for a state championship, which then builds the interest at the collegiate level.”

It becomes apparent that there is a need to encourage more girls to wrestle – and not just so colleges and universities can meet Title IX guidelines. Maggie Hendricks is an avid fan of all martial arts. In her blog, Chicks Heart Fights she comments on wrestling and MMA. Maggie has this to say about girls and wrestling, “…wrestling is a fantastic sport for young women. Wrestlers learn confidence, discipline and the value of hard work-these lessons are just as valuable for young women as they are for young men. Opening the sport to women will not only help young women, but the sport overall.”

So – how many girls other than those 5,000 in high school are wrestling. It’s hard to know – but definitely not enough. There are 204 girls entered at Junior Freestyle Nationals in Fargo this week – 59 of whom come from the three previously-mentioned states with girls vs. girls interscholastic competition (TX, HI and CA). Another 42 come from the states of Michigan (where the women’s US Olympic wrestling education center is located), Wisconsin and Kansas. Girls from just six states comprise almost half the entrants of the national championships.

I asked popular camp operator, Ken Chertow, how many girls attend his “girls only” camps. He said 20 – 30 girls between the ages of 8 and 18 participate.

Clearly, if we believe wrestling to be a valuable sport for all, we have to encourage more girls to participate. It’s just as clear that we need to change the perceptions that girls and parents have about wrestling. Even Tony Avallone reacted to Karissa’s initial request to try the sport with, “NO, it’s for boys.”

Women’s wrestling became an Olympic sport in 2004. Olympic medallists like Patricia Miranda and Sarah McMann give girls solid role models. While television coverage from Beijing is likely to be hit or miss, at best, many girls will have their first opportunity to see females wrestle.

However – as Troy Dannen suggests – we need to do more than that. We need to take matters in our own hands. Where possible, let’s add exhibition matches to high school and college meets. There is a women’s division at the NWCA/Cliff Keen National College Duals. Why not offer a girl’s clinic in conjunction with the event? What about a traveling demonstration team to visit elementary and middle schools (heck Duncan Yo-Yo used to do that).

Let’s get moving. Let’s make it easier to get more girls like Karissa in the sport.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Matbe we should hold a bake sale

Maybe we should hold a bake sale

According to a July 6 article on, 16 year-old Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson may already be worth close to a million dollars. Swimmers Michael Phelps and Amanda Beard already are. In his heyday, track immortal Michael Johnson earned over a million dollars a year.

Ben Askren is selling t-shirts.

That’s right, Olympian (and 2X winner of the Dan Hodge Trophy as America’s top collegiate wrestler) is selling tees online to help finance his family’s trip to Beijing - so are Spenser Mango, Henry Cejudo, Jake Deitchler, Andy Hrovat and Doug Schwab (to order a Doug Schwab t-shirt email

Wrestling is one of the original ancient Olympic sports and in all of those thousands of years winning the Olympics has been the ultimate triumph. There is no big payday at the end of the journey. Many of our wrestlers will end up in coaching. Three of the highest paid college head coaches (Cael Sanderson, Tom Brands and John Smith) are all past Olympic gold medallists. According to a Des Moines Register survey, each is paid in the neighborhood of $100,000 a year.

There probably aren’t many athletes that take up an “Olympic sport” with the hopes of future wealth. It is simply a function of “capitalism” or “business” that makes some of these athletes wealthy. At some point, corporate America realized that images of Bela Karolyi carrying Kerri Strug or of Michael Johnson and his golden shoes could sell credit cards, hamburgers or soft drinks. With the exception of the Cael Sanderson Wheaties box, this rarely happens to wrestlers. Multi-million dollar endorsement contracts do not likely await an American 55KG freestyle gold medallist.

So – in order to get their families to Beijing to watch them pursue the ultimate dream, many of our wrestlers have resorted to selling t-shirts to raise money. They need to sell a lot of shirts – it is estimated that a trip to Beijing will cost $6,000 to $7,500 per person. USA Wrestling also understands the challenge. It has launched the Fuel the Dream fund raising effort. Half of the funds raised by the Fuel the Dream drive go directly to our Olympic wrestlers – many of whom will use the money to get their families to Beijing. The other half goes to the development of future American wrestling teams.

When I was a kid in the ‘50s and 60s, the March of Dimes was quite different than it is today. If you brought a dime to school and dropped it into the slot of the collection can, the teacher gave you a plastic crutch lapel pin – which you wore proudly. I, and millions of American children, helped wipe out polio. My ten cents made a difference.

You can make a difference. Pick one of the hyperlinks above and order a t-shirt from your favorite wrestler. Wear it with the same pride that I wore that silly little plastic crutch. Or – go the Fuel the Dream site and make a contribution to the future of American Olympic wrestling (or do both).

Note: If you are aware of an Olympic wrestler that is trying to raise money to send his/her family to Beijing and I have missed them, leave a comment or send an email to and I will add a hyperlink for them in my comments.

PS My brother, Bruce, is the popular myspace blogger, The Judge. Today (Monday, July 14) is his 56th birthday. Stop by his blog and wish him a Happy Bastille Day.

Monday, July 7, 2008

2008 - an internet odyssey

2008 – an internet odyssey

I found internet wrestling sites two years ago. I had never been much of a surfer, but my wife had developed such a network of relationships among fans of The West Wing (a couple of whom are now very good friends of ours) that I thought that, perhaps, the same opportunities existed for fans of amateur wrestling.

From the ridiculous …

I found first and lurked for a couple of months. While the site was incredibly slow (even by 2006 standards), I found the news sections highly enlightening. The message board – now that was something else. Here are a couple of threads I actually read that were discussed extensively:

“If Dan Gable were wrestling today, he couldn’t beat Troy Nickerson”

“If Cael Sanderson hadn’t wrestled in such weak weight classes he never would have gone undefeated.”

Interestingly, these (or similar) threads get posted at least twice a year.

I would not be surprised to read the following post:

“Jake Deitchler is ducking all of the best guys by not going to Fargo.”

(Note to the non-wrestling fan readers: Jake Deitchler just graduated from high school and is, therefore, eligible to compete in the national junior freestyle and Greco-Roman championships in Fargo, ND. He will not do so because he became the first high school student in 32 years TO MAKE THE OLYMPIC WRESTLING TEAM.)

to the sublime.

Happily, about 18 months ago I found Hawkeye Nation. Yes these people were Hawkeye fans like me, but they also seemed to be real wrestling fans. There wasn’t much of the, “my team (recruiting class, coach, mascot) is better than yours and you’re an idiot if you disagree” posting that is so prevalent on some other wrestling sites.

After that I was hooked – was next. Here was a site that gave me in-depth articles and the best recruiting coverage on the ‘net.

Then I found, and the collection of videos from the 1972 Olympics was a true gift.

Wrestler, photographer and web developer extraordinary, Danielle Hobeika, introduced me to The Wrestling Talk and I found smart, international and (sometimes) humorous wrestling discussion.

Several of the best contributors to TWT are women. I’m beginning to believe that, as a gender, women make the best wrestling fans. They seem to be far more appreciative of the overall subtlety of the sport and far less into the “my guy can beat your guy” mentality. TWT is blessed with bluestater who writes a couple of blogs about sports as they appear from the “distaff” side. Her Chicks Heart Fights is one of the best I’ve seen about both wrestling and MMA.

The aforementioned Danielle Hobeika was instrumental in creating The Women’s Mat. It has fast become one of my favorite websites. As we approach Beijing, I highly recommend that you visit.

I write this blog once a week and there has been a time or two when I was challenged to come up with material. Jason Bryant of the National Wrestling Coach’s Association/intermat writes a DAILY blog called The Four Points. It ought to be a part of your regular reading – especially the guest blog written by Jake Deitchler. This young man, at 18 years old, is beautifully sharing his journey from Anoka, MN
to Beijing.

Andy Vogel, the head coach at Gettysburg College, writes and manages about NCAA Division III wrestling. The site is so in-depth I sometimes wonder when Andy sleeps.

So fans – fire up the old Commodore 64 and enjoy following the world’s oldest and greatest sport.