Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Road to Cedar Rapids- 2014: Fighting Off of Our Backs

Just a little over five years ago the Cedar River rose to record heights and covered almost 10 square MILES of Cedar Rapids. The floor of the US Cellular Center that had, just three months before, held the mats for the 2008 NCAA Division III Wrestling Championships, was now a couple of feet under water. According to FEMA calculations the Cedar Rapids flood of 2008 was/is one of the most financially devastating natural disasters in American history.

We have a wrestling heritage in Cedar Rapids. Four wrestlers from our high schools have won a total of 11 NCAA wrestling championships - eight in Division I and three in Division II. Two wrestlers from Coe College have totaled three Division III titles. Barry Davis is an Olympic Silver Medalist. The grand dame of wrestling, Sandy Stevens, was born here and announced her very first meet here. Heck, even our home grown Masters champion, Zach Johnson, wrestled in middle school. It's not a stretch for us to deal with challenge with a wrestling mentality. In July of 2008 we were "bridging" and fighting to get off our backs.

As I watched friends lose their homes, possessions and businesses I was struck by their fighting resolve. Kinda' made me think of the most famous comeback by a Cedar Rapids wrestler - ever.

We're still fighting, but we've gotten to our feet and started to score. We and Cornell College are hosting the 2014 NCAA Division III Championships, March 14 and 15 at the brand new US Cellular Center. Put us on your calendar. You'll see some great wrestling and also what tough people in a tough town can do.

You'll love it here - I promise.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

You can be anything

You can be a tough 125 pound kid from a small town in Illinois.

Or a tough 124 pound girl from New York City.

You can outwork your opponents.

Or you can out dazzle them.

You can be blind.

You can be missing a leg.

Or two.

You can come out of retirement after coaching your team to an NCAA title.

You can come from Mongolia to win 3 NCAA Division III championships for St Johns University in Minnesota.

Or come from Del City, Oklahoma to win 6 Olympic and World gold medals for your country.

You can walk off the mat and get elected to the Senate - or write best selling novels - or save millions from starvation - or fly in space - or lead Fortune 500 corporations. You can even be president of the United States.

Wrestling - the sport of opportunity.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The season is over - it's time to get to work.

Penn State dominated. Coach Cael Sanderson’s Nittany Lions traveled to Philadelphia and won the second NCAA Division I wrestling championship in school history. The most successful college wrestler in American history has now added coaching a team champion to his resume. Congratulations.

For all but the most ardent fans, the wrestling season is now officially over. Oh sure, the US Senior Open, University Nationals, World Team Trials, Fargo and the World Championships will all be contested between now and when high school and college wrestlers take the mat again for the 2011/2012 season, but a lot of fans don’t pay much attention to those events.

What a season it has been for the growth of wrestling. High school participation numbers continue to grow. The Beat the Streets movement is making new inroads into introducing wrestling to kids in the nation’s urban areas. Just last week Beat the Streets Philadelphia held a clinic in conjunction with the NCAA Championships. The NCAA and the Philadelphia tournament organizing committee donated $25,000 to Beat the Streets. College dual meet attendance records were broken at several schools.

This season also validated my contention that wrestling is the most democratic of sports. Here in Iowa, Cassy Herkelman and Megan Black made news when both qualified for the Iowa high school state tournament. Most of the attention was generated when Ms. Herkelman’s first round opponent defaulted rather than wrestle her. It made the national media. Lost in that furor were the accomplishments of Hope Steffensen (Alaska) and Rachel Hale (Vermont) who became the second and third American girls, respectively, to win state high school championships wrestling against boys.

In Arkansas, visually impaired Andrea’ Johnson, from the Arkansas School for the Blind, won his second state high school championship.

Last night, ten years after bi-lateral amputee Nick Ackerman won an NCAA Division III title for Simpson College, Arizona State’s Anthony Robles, born with only one leg, climbed to the top of the medal podium in Philadelphia – the 2011 NCAA Division I 125 pound champion.

Wrestling embodies the American dream. Opportunities to compete are open to all, but victories – and championships – are earned. The athlete who works the hardest and learns the most almost always triumphs. Students learn from participation in all co-curricular activities, but wrestling teaches things like courage, toughness, tenacity and perseverance in ways unmatched by other sports. Scholars since Socrates and Plato have recognized the value of wrestling. During last evening’s ESPN broadcast of the NCAA finals, best selling author, John Irving – himself a former wrestler and wrestling coach, did a marvelous job of explaining how wrestling makes him a better writer.

Many colleges are beginning to realize the value that wrestling can have for students – and themselves. Institutions like Baker University, Shorter University and Grand View University have all added wrestling teams in recent years. Other schools – Wayland Baptist University, Waldorf College, Missouri Baptist University and Jamestown College have added opportunities for women. There are now actually more college wrestling teams than there were 15 years ago.

Does this mean that all is well with American wrestling? Far from it.

On March 8th, the University of Sioux Falls announced that it will drop both the men’s tennis team and the wrestling team. Moving from the NAIA to NCAA Division II status is ostensibly cited as the primary reason. To read the official USF release is to be confused. The arguments presented for eliminating men’s tennis seem to have a tiny bit of validity, but nowhere in that document can I find the real reason that wrestlers are being shown the door. Okay – so the coach is resigning and the school would have to hire a new one. Isn’t hiring new faculty a daily reality in academia?

The University of North Carolina-Greensboro announced the elimination of wrestling six days later. The reason – to have more money ($308,000) to invest in basketball and soccer. UNCG chancellor, Linda Brady, and athletic director, Kim Record, have a stated goal of achieving a higher profile for UNCG sports – but most especially men’s and women’s basketball and soccer. How ironic. The Greensboro Sports Commission wants to brand the city as “Tournament Town” and two of its highest profile anchors – The Super 32 and the Southern Scuffle – are wrestling events. Together they bring millions of tourism dollars to the community every year.

The Southern Scuffle attracts 32 college teams, many of whom are among the top-rated programs in the country. It was started and is hosted by UNCG. The University is hoping to have its cake and cut it too – continuing to host the event without sponsoring a wrestling team of their own. Many in the wrestling community, including Cornell University coach, Rob Koll, have indicated that they will not support the Scuffle if there is a UNCG affiliation and the school drops the sport.

Apparently, Trev Alberts learned nothing about courage while playing football for the Nebraska Cornhuskers. In a move that can only be called cowardly, the University of Nebraska-Omaha athletic director chose to call wrestling coach, Mike Denney, on the telephone – in the middle of the night – to tell him his team was being eliminated. Even worse – Alberts chose to make that call while the Mavericks were celebrating their third consecutive NCAA Division II National Championship.

Like the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, UNO appears to want to chase the potential payoff of being a 16-seed in an NCAA basketball regional. UNO is moving into Division I and to finance their run to big school hoop “greatness” they have chosen to eliminate two of the school’s most successful programs – football and wrestling.

The move may well backfire financially for UNO. At least one major donor has indicated that he will withdraw his support if football is eliminated and another is questioning the validity of claims made by Alberts.

The National Wrestling Coaches Association has issued a call to arms to save these programs from the chopping block. You can visit their website to read guidelines for a course of action that anyone who cares about wrestling can follow.

There’s a lesson here that we don’t seem to get. If a program like University of Nebraska-Omaha – or the University of Oregon – or Fresno State – or Syracuse – or Portland State – can be dropped, is any college program really safe? Why do so many of us wait until another elimination announcement is made before we act? Why aren’t we working every day to keep the sport growing?

The season may be over, but the work still needs to be done.

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.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Gable and me.

I knew who Dan Gable was when I was in high school. His exploits were well known to me, first at Waterloo West and then at Iowa State University. In 1969 or 70 (I don’t really remember which), I went to Ames to watch him wrestle. A friend of mine wrestled at Augustana College in Rock Island and was going to the meet and asked me to ride along and maybe share the driving. That night planted the seed that would blossom into my love for wrestling.

I remember one Sunday morning when I opened the Medd-O-Lane/Dairy Queen where I worked, bringing in the newspapers and seeing, “Gable Fails”.

In 1972 I watched on ABC as he and one of the greatest American freestyle teams ever assembled dominated the wrestling competition. Commentator, Frank Gifford, called Dan the most dedicated athlete he’d ever seen.

Somewhere in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s, I went to my first University of Iowa dual meet. I didn’t go to many in those years, but we’re blessed in Iowa with Iowa Public Television College Wrestling broadcasts and I rarely missed one of those.

When my wife and I started dating in 1989 she bought our first Iowa season tickets. We’ve been in the same seats ever since.

I first met Dan in 1993. I was doing a little business with Eric and Adam Heneghan, who owned a small advertising agency, video production/editing company called Giant Step Productions. Eric had wrestled for Gable and some of their first work was producing videos for Dan. Once we learned of our mutual interest in wrestling, we generally spent more time talking about that than business.

Their studio was on the third floor of an older house not too far from the Iowa campus. One day I had an appointment with them and either Adam or Eric (I forget now) met me at the bottom of the outside steps that led up to the studio. He said, “You’re a big wrestling fan, right? Don’t you have season tickets?” I was puzzled because these were things we discussed frequently. I opened the door and was greeted by, “Hi, I’m Dan Gable.” My witty response – “I know.”

I’ve been known to have the occasional alcoholic beverage at the Cedar Rapids Marriott. I’ve also been known to talk endlessly about wrestling while there. One day I went in and a young bartender said, “Here, I have something for you.” It was a bar napkin with Gable’s autograph. Dan had been speaking at an I-Club meeting the night before and this young man (thank you, Chris) had made a point of getting the autograph for me. It is one of my most prized possessions.

Last year I launched Tickets for Kids. One day an envelope arrived with one of those pre-printed return address labels, “Dan Gable, Iowa City, IA”. It contained a check to Tickets for Kids. My wife asked if I was going to frame the check. Nope – I used it for what Dan intended – sending some kids to last season’s Division III Championships.

I framed the envelope.

I met Dan for the second time at a breakfast honoring longtime wrestling coach, athletic director and development director at both Coe and Cornell, Barron Bremner. The event was sponsored by what is now called the National Wrestling Hall of Fame Dan Gable Museum and he and I were both speakers at the event. He was still on crutches from the broken leg he had suffered in November, but he was gracious to everyone that wanted to talk to him – including me.

Shortly after that I learned that I had been awarded the National Wrestling Coaches Dan Gable “America Needs Wrestling Award”. I was stunned. It is a tremendous honor to have my name associated in any way with his. It’s also quite humbling.

Dan officially retired from the University of Iowa Friday. The Cedar Rapids Gazette is featuring him in today’s edition. Several people are sharing their memories of Gable – including the infamous Barry Davis Hy Vee doughnut story.

My most lasting images of Dan Gable are both from the 1997 NCAA Championships. The first – pounding his crutch on the floor and yelling, “Strongest man in the world” when Jesse Whitmer won his title. Then when Bob Siddens handed Gable the team championship trophy – I cried.

I suspect it’s not going to be a leisurely retirement. He loves this sport more than most of us can imagine and I’m guessing he’s just getting ready to ramp up even greater efforts to grow the “world’s oldest and greatest sport” in America.