Saturday, November 14, 2009

Life Lessons For A Mat Rat

"I can do this...I can do this...I can do this. I can pin him in the first period. He'll underestimate me because I'm scrawny and he sees me coughing."

That was what went through my head every time I got on the wrestling mat in high school. I knew if I could get my opponent on his back in the first period, I had a shot at a win. Anything past that and I ran out of gas. But winning wasn't always that hard for me...

In elementary school I was one hell of a wrestler. With all the physical and personal problems I had complicating my life, I needed an outlet for my anger. I had been watching the fake stuff on TV for a while and figured I could pick up the "other kind" of wrestling without any problems, so I asked my mom and dad to sign me up. Turns out I was right. I had built up a lot of upper body strength to compensate for my lack of leg strength and balance from cerebral palsey and spastic diaplagia. I beat people twice my size because I was deceptively strong, extremely quick, and very smart. I was always thinking two or three steps ahead of my opponent and would end my matches before they knew what was going on. In fact, I rarely lost a match and a lot parents would complain to the coach because their kids had to wrestle me. Looking back now, I can see why. All of my anger and frustration came out when I wrestled and that probably scared them a little. What a bunch of babies!

By junior high school, only the best kids continued on in wrestling and improved with practice. I improved as well, but not by the leaps and bounds that other guys did. A lot of it had to do with my Cystic Fibrosis-infected body not maturing as quickly as most of my peers. Then there was the ever present problem that wrestling season was always during the worst time of the year...flu and cold season. CF compromises your immune system which meant all through junior high (and high school for that matter) I got sick frequently and missed practices and meets. On top of all the CF garbage, I developed a mild asthmatic condition. It was kind of embarrassing...then again, so were the spandex singlets we had to wear. No one on the team could understand why I was gone all the time, but I never blamed them for that. Even if I explained CF to them, it's hard to know what it's like unless you live with it.

To be honest, there was a much simpler explanation for my decline. Even though I never stopped busting my ass to get better, I wasn't a superior athlete. When the cream of the crop rose to the top, I stayed at mid-level. Some people are born to be athletes and others find their talents elsewhere. I was an "other" and that was okay. I stuck with it because I loved wrestling and it kept me healthy.

By the time I got to high school, wrestling was a struggle. I did everything I was asked, but it wasn't very pretty. I went to almost every practice, worked out in the weight room three times a week, and attended every meet my body would allow. Winning matches had become a rarity, but I managed to win a few exhibition matches at different meets which made me happy. Plus, my teammates were always there cheering me on which was cool. They knew how hard I was trying and I appreciate that to this day.

There were several guys in my 112 lbs.weight class that were much more talented than I was, so it was going to be near impossible to ever reach my goal of wrestling on junior varsity team. Thank goodness for wrestle-offs which allowed every guy on the team to actively try to win their roster spot. I always went in thinking...just once...maybe I could pull off the upset. The coaches had initially let me compete for a spot, but one day after practice the coaches pulled me aside to talk:

"We think it might be better if you don't wrestle-off for a while because you have missed a lot of practices and we want to do what's best for the team. But we definitely want you there to cheer us on because you are one of the most supportive guys."

I was shocked. On one hand, I understood that the guys that had been there every week deserved their time to shine. It was a very "win, win, win" mentality in high school and, as with any sports team on any level, you want to put your best athletes out there for competition. I was not a superstar athlete, so from that perspective it made sense. On the other hand, I had no control over my health and didn't think that should have been held against me. Plus, it was junior varsity wrestling for goodness sake! The coaches had always been so supportive of me...where did this whole opinion come from? I've never liked being coddled or patronized. Rather than make a big deal out of it, I kept my mouth shut and begrudgingly agreed to not wrestle-off anymore.

For the next two years I was the unofficial rookie trainer of the team and the "wrestling dummy" for the guys that needed a partner. I was pretty good at my new role. I took pride in teaching them the basics. A lot of the new guys thought wrestling was easy. The first time the set their eyes on me they were convinced they could take me down. Always the gentleman, I invited them to "take a shot and see what happens." When the rookies tried to take me down, they always shot for my legs with their heads facing down toward the mat instead of looking at me like they should have been. Instinctively, I'd hop back and slam their face into the mat. One time, I accidentally made a guy's nose bleed for a good hour and he let me know with some very colorful language that he was not happy about it. Settle down'll learn.

Another time, I had to wrestle a guy in the 150 lbs weight class because they were short a teammate. Of course, this guy got cocky and started to take it easy on me. That pissed me off, so I decided to embarrass him for taking pity on the "sick kid". Before he knew what I was doing, I scooped him up in a single leg and drove him to the ground. He was humiliated and beat the living crap out of me for the rest of practice, purposely stretching my limbs in a way the human body should not bend. It was worth the pain to teach him this lesson: There is only one way to learn about wrestling...the hard way. If you aren't ready for the mental and physical pain, then you aren't ready to wrestle. The rookies caught on and sooner than later were eventually pinning me and moving on to junior varsity and sometimes the varsity team.

By my senior year of high school, I felt I had earned the right to wrestle-off for a spot on the JV team. I walked into the coach's office and cut right to the chase. "Listen, I've busted my ass for this team and I deserve the opportunity to be something more. Please let me wrestle-off. Why won't you let me to wrestle-off?" The coaches gave me this run around answer that they needed me as a motivator. The last thing they ever said to me was.. "If you aren't happy, then you should go home." That was all I needed to hear. After 11 years of wrestling with all my heart and soul, I just walked away. I'd never quit anything in my entire life, but if all my effort didn't warrant the opportunity to earn a spot on junior varsity team, then it wasn't worth my time and energy. I thanked them for my time on the team, cleaned out my locker, and headed home with my head held high. I was proud of what I had done throughout my wrestling career and if this was the way I needed to end it, with my pride in tact, then so be it.

Life isn't always happy endings. It's about learning from experiences. I am disappointed that I never fulfilled my dream of wrestling on the junior varsity team, but I'm not mad anymore. It was worth every moment. I attribute my phenomenal health for many years to the workout regimen that you're put through. Living with CF is sometimes painful, but I've trudged through with the mental toughness I learned from wrestling. But more importantly, I learned a major lesson about of living a good life. A fulfilled person needs to stand by their principles and believe in themselves. Those are the things worth living for. In the end that made me one hell of a wrestler.

Peaceful and Prideful Things,



  1. I was the Cheer Captain for the Wrestling team all through High School. I would have cheered extra hard for you if we'd still gone to school together after the 5th grade.

    You are so strong in so many ways.

  2. Always proud of you, my son.
    love mom

  3. Josh,
    Another great story!

  4. That is so awesome!! I know what it's like to be sick a lot and have to miss practice. It sucks, to not get to play (wrestle) as much because you're sick but it's so much fun to be a part of a team whether you play or not. You learn oh so much!

    Those uniforms are awesome haha. What a great story, as I always say, You're an amazing writer!


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