Monday, July 26, 2010

Do gold medals really matter anymore?

John Smith won two NCAA titles at Oklahoma State and then went on to win 2 Olympic Gold Medals and four freestyle World Championships. Dan Gable also won two NCAA championships while wrestling for the Iowa State Cyclones. Gable’s post-graduate freestyle career includes a Pan American Games title, the 1971 World Championship, the championship at the 1972 Tbilisi tournament and the 1972 Olympic Gold Medal. Bruce Baumgartner, too, was an NCAA champion while wrestling at Indiana State. In his storied freestyle career he accumulated more Olympic and World hardware than some entire countries have won.

For decades America’s best college wrestlers successfully transitioned from intercollegiate competition to the international stage. Glen Brand, Bill Smith, Doug Blubaugh, Tom Brands and countless others advanced from NCAA championship trophies to Olympic gold. And then – as if to keep the chain unbroken – many of them went in to coaching and trained the next generations of international freestyle champions.

At least to this fan, the chain seems to be weakening.

I like to watch all forms of wrestling and freestyle is no exception. But FILA, the international governing body of amateur wrestling, has changed freestyle rules so drastically in the last ten years that modern freestyle bears far less resemblance to American folkstyle wrestling than in years past. Do these changes contribute to the seeming American decline? I think so.

It’s not just that we wrestle a different style in America, it’s also that our organizational structure is different. The United States is one of very few countries in the world (Canada might be another) where kids get most of their wrestling opportunities within our schools – and American schools are almost inextricably tied to folkstyle wrestling. Most of the world’s wrestling powers develop their athletes through a “club” type system. Some of them may be privately funded and others government run, but this formula allows them to more freely adapt to changes in freestyle.

Here in the US our kids spend thousands of hours working toward winning first a city middle school tournament, and then a high school state championship and finally an NCAA crown – all in our prevalent “national” style. The most dedicated of those will spend a couple of “offseason” months competing in freestyle and/or Greco Roman wrestling. Thanks to USA Wrestling and Jason Bryant I just finished watching more hours than I should have of the Cadet and Junior Freestyle Championships in Fargo. By and large it was very entertaining wrestling, but I’m willing to bet that there are at least a half dozen 17-year-old kids in each of the former Soviet republics that could easily handle most, if not all, of out Junior Champions in freestyle competition. The number one reason is simple – those kids devote their entire lives to freestyle wrestling.

The disparity doesn’t disappear at the elite level. Our best wrestlers will have prepared for years to win an NCAA championship – or two – or three - and then at age 22 or 23 switch to a style where their opponents have a 10 – 15 year head start on them.

There are those who say the answer is simple – convert American interscholastic and intercollegiate wrestling to freestlye. If our primary goal for wrestling is to win more international medals that might be the answer. But what if our goal is to expose more kids to the intrinsic value of wrestling? Does a change in styles help there? I’m not sure – but I suspect not. It’s not that I think young athletes would naturally prefer folkstyle to freestyle. That defies logic. The difficulty would come at the teaching/coaching level. I fear that we would have too may coaches who, brought up completely in folkstyle, would lose their enthusiasm for the sport – and without motivated teachers we would see a drop in participation.

There is no rule that says a young American wrestler must follow the traditional path to Olympic glory. The recent improvement in American Greco-Roman wrestling may be due, in part, to more young athlete’s foregoing a college career to focus on their GR training. Let’s also not forget that America’s only freestyle gold medallist in Beijing, Henry Cejudo, opted to go directly from his high school graduation to the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

Now there’s a new factor in the equation – Mixed Martial Arts. An international freestyle career has never been a gateway to great wealth for American competitors. Traditionally, the top athletes have earned a small stipend from USA Wrestling and supplemented their incomes with college assistant coaching jobs. The latter again brings the style conflict into play as they sacrifice their own freestyle training time to teach better folkstyle techniques to younger athletes.

Increasingly, graduating wrestlers are lured away from the sport by the potential for big money in MMA, where the top stars can earn six figures per bout. Former Oklahoma State Cowboy stars Jake Rosholt and Johnny Hendricks were among the first to eschew international wrestling competition and move quickly into MMA fighting. 2010 graduates Lance Palmer of Ohio State and Missouri’s Mark Ellis both recently announced upcoming forays into mixed martial arts. Will this trend continue and how will it impact the future of American wrestling?

Many MMA fans believe that the growth in “ultimate fighting” will only help wrestling when young grapplers see the potential for future wealth battling in the octagon. I’m not sure that I believe that premise. Look at baseball where even journeyman players are millionaires. Yet, participation in Little League has dropped 13% since 1997.

Do we, as fans, really care what happens on the international stage? Unfortunately, I suspect that the answer is that fewer and fewer of us do. If you are among those who do, there is a way to help our top freestyle, Greco-Roman and women wrestlers. The Living the Dream Fund was created to provide cash rewards for medal winners at the World Championship and Olympic competition. An American gold medallist in Moscow in September will receive $50,000 from the fund, while a silver medal is worth $25,000 and a bronze will net $15,000. You can contribute online at the Living the Dream website. You'll be strengthening American wrestling.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Wanted - tough people

They took one of the “toughest” actions in world history. In July 1776, 56 men signed the Declaration of Independence. They were merchants, farmers, lawyers and doctors. One was a minister. Seventeen fought in the Revolutionary war and five were captured by the British. Eleven had their property destroyed and two gave their entire fortunes to fund the war. These were tough guys – and when they needed a military leader – they called upon a wrestler.

At age 18 George Washington won a county-wide championship in the “collar-and-elbow” style of wrestling that was popular at the time. At another time, Washington witnessed a wrestling-match. The champion of the day challenged him, in sport, to wrestle. Washington did not stop to take off his coat, but grasped the "strong man of Virginia.'' It was all over in a moment, for, said the wrestler, "In Washington's lionlike grasp I became powerless, and was hurled to the ground with a force that seemed to jar the very marrow in my bones.'' At age 47, while commander of the Continental Armies, Washington consecutively defeated seven challengers from the Massachusetts Volunteers.

Throughout history – from Milo of Croton, to Abraham Lincoln, to Dr. Norman Borlaug – when toughness was needed – a wrestler stepped up. Knowing that, it is hard to understand why American intercollegiate wrestling continues to be assaulted by outside forces. It is short-sighted thinking.

We need “tough” scientists who can solve the alarming number of environmental challenges facing the world. We need “tough” business people who can lead us to economic recovery. We need “tough” educators to stop the American slide into mediocrity. Yet – when I peruse college catalogs, I never see “Toughness 101” listed. It’s our college wrestling coaches who teach that course.

Since the time of Socrates, athletic competition – especially wrestling – has been considered an integral part of educating the whole person. There are things learned on the mat that just simply can’t be taught elsewhere. Thousands of today’s college wrestlers are going to go on to teach our kids, start new businesses, heal our sick and lead our communities. Don’t we want them to be fully prepared?

Our Founding Fathers were far from perfect. When Jefferson wrote, “all men are created equal” he actually meant “all white, male property owners are created equal”. It would take a wrestler to free African-Americans from the horrors of slavery 87 years later.

Hundreds of years of second-class status for women is another dark part of American history. Unfortunately, American wrestling still treats girls and women as an afterthought. The first World Championships in women’s freestyle wrestling were held in 1987. It became an Olympic sport in 2004 and 85 countries have Olympic qualifying competitions.

A year ago America’s only three women’s freestyle Olympic medallists, Patricia Miranda, Sara McMann and Randi Miller filed a grievance with USA Wrestling and The US Olympic Committee alleging that USAW violated the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act by not providing “equitable support and encouragement for participation by women”.

On January 29th of this year USA Wrestling and the three complainants issued a joint statement that the grievance had been successfully resolved. This seems to indicate that progress is being made at the upper levels of the sport. But what about elsewhere – with our kids programs, interscholastic and collegiate athletes? Are we providing enough opportunities? Are we encouraging young girls to try the sport?

In 46 states we still place a major roadblock in front of high school girls who want to wrestle – we make them wrestle almost exclusively against boys. How many other sports do this? When I discuss this dilemma with girl’s sports advocates or wrestling leaders, I get a Catch 22 argument – we need grass roots interest to expand girl’s high school wrestling, but we need more girl’s high school wrestling opportunities to grow grass roots interest. So – what’s the answer? Like so many things in this sport, someone has to step up and take a leadership role – at the local level, at the state level and nationally. Where are those people?

Slowly, intercollegiate wrestling opportunities for women are expanding. Another encouraging sign is that more women are becoming college head coaches. I frequently read online comments that suggest we should continue to expand women’s college wrestling as a tool to fight Title IX attrition. That argument misses the mark.

If we truly value what wrestling teaches – why deny those lessons to half of the population? If your daughter grows up to be an attorney why shouldn’t she be equipped with a toughness learned on the mat? If your sister becomes the CEO of a troubled corporation shouldn’t she know the resiliency taught by wrestling? When the woman researcher is trying to find the cure for your cancer wouldn’t you want her to have the perseverance Dr. Borlaug attributed to his wrestling experience?

We will always need “Toughness 101” in our colleges – but let’s be sure its available for everyone.