Universal Mat Care


December 13, 2009 by David Gillaspie

Guys scrub around on the mats all the time .  The girls caught on fast and changed the sport, but there’s still work to do.   

2004 Olympic Trials, Women’s Wrestling

The odds of a youth league ballplayer making the high school varsity are long when he grows up; they are even longer for making a college team.  With that, the odds of a high school wrestler competing in college are worse.  The astronomical odds against anyone moving on to the professional ranks of any sport are better odds than someone making money doing collegiate wrestling.

The NFL and NBA, for example, contain a tiny sampling of the players who start out in the backyard.  The athletes on those teams are the elite of the world and prove it every time a game starts.  The best evidence that we really do care about professional sports are television ratings and ad rates. 

Going pro for an amateur wrestler is another matter.  Not everyone wants to climb into the octagon, not everyone enjoys MMA, but they still like wrestling. 

If the question is where do wrestlers go to extend their competitive life, why not ask which direction the sport is headed first?

I saw a guide post recently.

Girl wrestlers are nothing new.  Women competed at the Athens Olympics, shattering that particular glass ceiling.  High school teams have had enough girl wrestlers to remove the shock value.  But they usually wrestle guys. 

There’s no disgrace losing to a girl who started club wrestling early and has five years on the mat before high school even starts.  She’s a winner who happens to be female, and she’s as tough as nails.

Adjusting to a dominant girl beating boys in high school is one thing, seeing the JV part of a dual meet with four girls on two mats was a surprise.  Who knew two teams had that many girls out?  Not me, but maybe I should have…

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I got a call from a coach one night asking me to pick up a wrestler at the Greyhound station.  He wanted me to take them to their college and get them settled in.  I said sure.

“The bus comes in at five in the morning,” he said.

The bus station at five in the morning is no place to be.  It’s not the airport.  It’s not full of bright eyes and bushy tails leaving on a fantastic day of travel, or people arriving on an exciting business trip.  It has more of a vagrant feel of hungover faces, the smell of burned popcorn and urine.

“This is a wrestler coming in from Colorado Springs,” the coach said.

All I heard was five o’clock in the morning and got stuck on the image of a week old hotdog rolling around on a warmer like it was the last 7-11 meal on earth.  It didn’t matter where they were coming in from.

“They’re coming from the Olympic Training Center,” he said.

The bus ride of broken dreams.  I’ll be picking up some beat down character who thought they were Olympic Team material and found out how the big boys roll.  I braced myself for listening to another story of dashed hope.  At five in the morning.  These stories always resonate with me. 

After you hear or read enough sports heartaches you start wondering why anyone would even make an attempt at greatness.  Who accomplishes everything they set out to accomplish?  There’s always a let down.  Listening politely is a way of making others feel less alone and not the time to run out your own list of disappointments at five in the morning inside an urban bus station. 

I said I’d pick them up and take them to their school and made a note to set my alarm for four. 

“Her name is Tela,” the coach said.

An alarm went off.  I’m picking up a girl wrestler carrying the emo of defeat?  She’s been driven from the Olympic Training Center?  Just what everyone needs to start their day, right?  I got ready. 

The bus station had all the expected sights and smells.  I saw a pile of bags that looked like something from a good refugee camp with a bike on top.  No one was near it.  I looked around for a gnarly young woman, a short, compact woman, a bow-legged ground pounder; in other words I waited for a wrestler to appear near the pile.  Maybe in a cast, maybe a sling.

I passed time people watching.  I got panhandled.  I heard a lunatic argue with himself.  I saw an exotic beauty window shopping the gated business fronts inside the terminal.  I figured my wrestler was in the bathroom, so I took a spot near the pile of stuff.

The model-looking woman flashed her picture perfect smile.  I’m there for Broomhilda and see my first Cosmo Covergirl walking around a bus station.  I looked away, scanning the place for a short, stubby gal with a bad complexion.

When I looked back the young woman was standing in front of me with her hand out. 

Hello, I’m Tela.” 

I said hello and offered to carry her gear, the usual.  Before I got to it she picked up the whole pile and headed for the door. 

“Point the way,” she said. 

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What do women’s teams have to do with the hard core base of wrestling?  Everything.  It’s time to recruit girl wrestlers.  The days of P.E. class field hockey as the only girls’ sport may be long gone, but until the numbers for women and girls wrestling teams increase there will be no true equality in sports. 

Real change is coming.     

I’ve seen girl’s softball games where two teams chanted from their sidelines; I heard the same thing at a recent dual meet that rocked the gym.  It wasn’t just the noise level; it was the voices in unison, the call and response.  It was both varsity wrestling teams standing up on either side of the mat and cheering together.

From this sports fan’s point of view it was spectacular.  It could have been anywhere in Pennsylvania or Ohio.  It could have been a gym in Massachusetts or Michigan, New Orleans or New Jersey.  It echoed down the halls the same as it does in Staten Island, Alabama, and Syracuse.

Watching close wrestling matches is a peak sports viewing experience with the crowd in full scream, but organized cheers took it too a whole ‘nother level.  Credit the girls, the mat girls and the wrestlers.   

That both teams had girls wrestling made a difference.  Is sportsmanship high in women’s sports?  Real high, just like wrestling’s reputation.  Regardless of condition or disability, wrestlers of every stripe and ability, every gender and age, hit the mats, and that’s worth cheering about.  Why? 

It is the universal sport; an open invitation to exceed expectations one day at a time, one match, a week, a lifetime.  Pick one, or pick all. 

Don’t wait any longer, after all, leaders lead.  Bring the sport of wrestling up to modern standards with equal participation.  If there’s not enough women in the practice room, then trim another part of the women’s sports budget to fund wrestling at a higher profile.  Women would eventually take one for the sisterhood and start wrestling in numbers to save their sports.

They would eventually find their  wrestling conversion moment.  Everyone does.  One time or another you feel like everyone’s looking at you.  No one is looking at you, it just feels that way.  The bigger the stage the greater the feeling.  Eventually, you really do have everyone watching you, and that’s your moment.  Everyone needs one. 

How did you feel out in the middle of the mat for the first time when it was just you, the eventual loser, the ref?  And a crowd waiting to explode?     


David Gillaspie


5 thoughts on “Universal Mat Care

  1. […] Catholic High School Set To CloseGetting an Accredited High School Diploma Via Internet SchoolingUniversal Mat Care […]

  2. […] When you discuss where wrestling is headed in college, try not to pull out the Title 9 issue.  Why?  Because women’s sports include wrestling in some colleges and why open that up?  […]

  3. […] Iowa Boy added to Universal Mat Care […]

  4. David Gillaspie says:

    Savior for men’s college wrestling, or savior for all sports. In a perfect world everyone would have one season of wrestling experience, with the idea that one season is never enough once you get on a roll.

    Mandatory wrestling in high school and college would boost all athletics. Every halftime pep talk would include, “Come on, how tough is the other team? It’s not like you have to wrestle them.” Every football, baseball, and basketball team would be better. Every golf, tennis, and swim team too.

    Universal wrestling would make better students and better citizens. Why is the first Presidential primary election in Iowa? They know their wrestling and their politics. Coincidence?

  5. Iowa Boy says:

    Interesting article from the land-0-wrestling:

    In a wrestling crazed state like Iowa, it just had to happen: girls’ high school wrestling. Gilbert High School, now in its third season, is the pioneer in this sport. They’ve held the unsanctioned State Tournament there for the last two years and this years’ is scheduled for March 4. Living in Iowa was on hand for the state’s first dual meet between Gilbert and Spencer, where we met some of the wrestlers and their coaches.
    Actually, Iowa is getting off to a slow start in girls’ wrestling, which is already quite popular in several states, with Texas’ 130 sanctioned high school teams leading the way. There has been a national tournament for the last several years, and the International Olympics Committee is planning to add women’s wrestling soon. Some see the sport as a possible savior for men’s college wrestling programs which are being scaled back due to Title IX requirements for gender equality.

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