Sunday, February 20, 2011

Finding the next Tricia Saunders

According to my facebook alert, tomorrow (February 21) is Tricia Saunders’ birthday. Happy birthday, Tricia – and thank you.

Presumably, almost all of you reading this are wrestling fans, because – well – that’s what I write about. I’m willing to wager that some of you – maybe many of you – have never heard of Tricia. She won World freestyle championships in 1992, 1996, 1998 and 1999 and was the outstanding wrestler in the 1992 competition. No American woman ever beat her.

Always a vocal advocate for women’s wrestling, when her competitive career ended she became an influential coach, serving on world team coaching staffs in 2001, 2002 and 2003 and on the staff of the first American women’s Olympic wrestling team in 2004. In 2006 Tricia Saunders was the first woman ever inducted as a Distinguished Member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

The same year that Saunders was inducted into the Hall of Fame another American female made wrestling history. Michaela Hutchison became the first girl to win a boy’s state wrestling championship when she won the 103 pound class at the Alaska state tournament. Hers is probably not a well known name among wrestling fans either.

You probably don’t recognize the name, Cassy Herkelman, either – but – if I describe her as “the girl that the boy refused to wrestle in the Iowa state high school tournament” the bells of recognition are likely to go off. The story made the national media and people with absolutely no interest in wrestling have been asking me about it for two days. I doubt that girls or women wrestling have ever received this kind of attention.
Just in case you missed it, the short version is that when Joel Northrup drew Cassy in the first round of the state tournament he chose to default instead of wrestling her, saying, "I have a tremendous amount of respect for Cassy ... However, wrestling is a combat sport and it can get violent at times. As a matter of conscience and my faith I do not believe that it is appropriate for a boy to engage a girl in this manner."
Wrestling IS a combat sport – as are judo, tae kwon do and karate. When girls or women choose to compete in the latter three – even against males - it is frequently considered empowering. The public loves the image of the 100 pound woman kicking the snot out of her larger (evil) male tormentor. We’ve cheered for that scene in dozens of movies. Why, then, is there such public “queasiness” about girls wrestling boys? I respect Joel Northrup’s beliefs, but I don’t think it’s the violence – I think it is the perception that there is something potentially sexual about many of the typical contacts found in a wrestling match. Do I agree with that perception? No, but you know the old saying – “perception IS reality”.

Lost in the uproar was recognition of the historic nature of both Ms. Herkelman and Megan Black qualifying for the Iowa state high school tournament – earning their way in.

Wrestling is the most democratic of sports. Three weeks from now marks the 10th anniversary of bi-lateral amputee, Nick Ackerman, winning an NCAA Division III championship. One week after that, Anthony Robles, born with one leg, will begin his quest for a Division I title. Anthony is currently ranked number 1 at his weight by several of the ranking services. You don’t have to be blessed with unusual height or blazing speed to win at wrestling. The athlete who works the hardest and learns the most almost always triumphs – and, yes, sometimes that means that girls beat boys – as Cassy Herkelman did 23 times this year.

As much as I root for the girls to win, girls wrestling boys is the biggest single roadblock to girls wrestling. Four states offer girl’s state wrestling championships. Texas, Hawaii and Washington have sanctioned varsity tournaments and California has a state “invitational” championship. Over 6,000 girls wrestle in high school in America and the majority of them can be found in those four states.

We who love the sport are fond of spouting off about what wrestling teaches – toughness, independence, resiliency and tenacity. Why would we only want half of our kids to have the opportunity to learn those things on the mat? Why aren’t we working harder to get girls into wrestling?

It seems to me that we are at a crossroads for women’s and girl’s wrestling. Most of the successful women’s wrestlers of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s came from a girls vs. boys or women vs. men background. Tricia Saunders, Patricia Miranda and Sara McMann all wrestled against males on their paths to World and Olympic medals. At the time, it was the only road to success. We are now starting to see young women on the US team who come from a girls vs. girls high school environment and then went on to a college with a women’s wrestling program.

More women coaching would be the next step. It appears that only three women are head coaches of women’s intercollegiate wrestling teams, Marcie VanDusen at Menlo, Tocarra Montgomery at Lindenwood and Alaina Berube at the University of the Cumberlands. Perhaps more importantly, do we need more women involved at the kid’s club level? Wrestling has always been a grassroots activist sport. If more girls participate at the youth level does it follow that there then arises a need for more states to offer girl’s high school wrestling? It should – but we’ll never know until we get busy and try.

More girls wrestling – that just might be a great birthday gift for Tricia Saunders.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Senior Day

Senior day is a tradition in all college sports. I’ve attended a lot of them for wrestlers over the years. I’ve seen future world and Olympic champions honored as they took the mat in front of the home crowd for the last time. I’ve watched as fans said good-bye to young men who are now successful high school and college coaches. There have also been many who stepped on the mat for the last time and went on to careers as doctors, attorneys, teachers, entrepreneurs – even an Iditarod musher.

The biggest cheers always come for the All-Americans and the National Champions. But – there’s a special place in my heart for the “guys in the room” – guys who went to practice every day, lifted, ran and got beat up daily by some of the best wrestlers in the country and stuck it out for reasons only they know. When they get handed their diploma at graduation there ought to be a certificate enclosed that reads – “Toughness 101: A+”.

I’m attending two Senior Day/Nights this week. Sunday afternoon the Hawkeyes host the Michigan Wolverines. Since I won’t get to go to the Big Ten tournament or Division I Nationals, it will be the last time I watch Luke Lofthouse wrestle. Luke has not had your typical career. A three-time state high school state champion in Utah, Luke cut to 174 pounds from his high school senior year weight of 189 and started for the Hawks as a true freshman. It was a tough year and he went 8-17 in collegiate competition. In the matches I remember seeing that year, I always admired his hustle and his fight.

After his freshman year he left the University of Iowa and went to Africa on a two-year Mormon mission. When he returned he was not in wrestling condition, but Luke is a worker. He red-shirted, kept working hard and last season filled in admirably when Chad Beatty was out with injuries.

This season Luke is the starter and is having success. Friday night he scored an upset win over fifth-ranked Matt Powless of Indiana. It is hard-earned success. By all accounts Luke is a tireless worker and a team leader. He projects a great image when in front of the press and when he’s on the mat I can’t help but root extra hard for him. He is a credit to his family, his religion, his teammates, his coaches and his university.

Friday night my wife and I and our granddaughter, Piper, are going to the Coe/Cornell dual at the Eby Fieldhouse. I suspect that Piper, who is 4, will not make it through the entire meet and that’s okay. I just want to be there to honor Clayton Rush. Not just because he has had such a remarkable career (NCAA Division III Champion and 3X All-American to this point), but because he is a fine young man who embodies what intercollegiate sports can be about.

Since the Flood of 2008, I’ve become friends with the Rush family – Clayton, Gail and Rick. When a young friend of mine and his family lost everything in the flood, Gail and Clayton were among the first to help out. When I needed help manning the Adam Frey memorial booth at last season’s National Duals, Gail volunteered. This season she joined in on the Tickets for Kids effort and raised enough money to bring almost the entire town of Aledo to National Duals.

An Academic All-American, Clayton wants to coach. Somehow I suspect he’ll be a good one. I’m looking forward to seeing him wrestle in La Crosse at the Division III Championships next month.