wrestling

Posted by Ellen

During a slow afternoon at a bar in Havana Vieja, one of the bartenders watches a Cuban national team wrestling match on tv. The Cubans are traditional powers in wrestling, boxing, judo, and other martial arts, often taking home dozens of Olympic medals.

Below are scenes of training and competition at a youth wrestling program in downtown Havana, housed in an old Basque gymnasium. Photos by Alexandre Meneghini for Reuters.

Posted by Ellen

When last we spent our Saturdays at high school wrestling tournaments, back in the decade of the twenty-oughts, we were parents of wrestlers, which meant that we were working the concession stand or down on our knees with a camcorder or scanning the scene from the bleachers, looking for indications of wrestling drama.

We can report with confidence that in the winter of 2015, all the drama is still much in evidence. Even before you enter the gym, you can't help but notice the kid standing all by himself out in the cold parking lot, hiding his face, struggling not to cry.

The only big difference nowadays is that somehow, magically, our wrestlers from way back then have returned to this scene as what might be called wrestling facilitators. One of them is now a referee with striped shirt and whistle, and another is an assistant assistant coach, a guy who sits in the corner of the mat during each bout and yells, "Circle! Circle! Good–keep that elbow. That's all right, don't worry, now up and out!"

High school wrestling matches last six minutes, except when they're over in a few seconds. That can happen when a newbie, with panic in his eyes, is up against an experienced wrestler who knows a few moves. Of course it can also happen when an experienced wrestler underestimates an opponent, or when he forgets for an instant to do or not do something critical that he knew perfectly well he was supposed to do or not do.

The drama actually begins before the wrestling even starts. Kids wearing hoodies pace back and forth in front of the bleachers, headphones clamped on their ears, eyes focused in some alternate universe. They're trying to psych themselves up, or calm themselves down, or both.
 
By the time they strip off the hoodie and walk out to the center of the mat, some of them already look destined to lose. They've heard something about their opponent that scares them, or they just know from lessons learned the hard way that their performance will likely be disappointing. They may surprise themselves, they really may win, but their posture and eye movements are already broadcasting what they figure are the dismal odds against them.
 
Other kids work hard before the match at presenting body language that says something different: "I'm the man," or "You're dirt," or "I will break you." They're swaggering out there, playing the part in the script that they want for themselves; maybe it will work, maybe it will backfire, maybe it won't matter at all. But there's no wrestling without broad drama.
 
From the stands, kids cheer on their teammates and yell at them to shoot. They talk smack with each other and steal each other's drinks and snacks and pretend not to give them back. Some of them are smartasses. Some are trying to nap. They're high school kids, and it's a Saturday.
 
And on display in the gym are adolescent bodies of every imaginable size and shape, all looking at least a little bit goofy in those singlets. There are little guys with twigs for limbs, and thick-necked muscle-bound jocks, and mountainous heavyweights with serious guts and no necks at all. No other high school forum welcomes all these physical specimens, offers them all a chance, however slight a chance, to be a hero.
 
Among the hundreds of boys are a few girls. During our years as wrestling parents in Maine, there were girls on some of the teams, and they wrestled boys, occasionally with some success. This year in western Washington, girls appear to be a bit more numerous on the mats, and they wrestle one another.
 
We attended the Marysville Premier tournament, in the company of the Blazers from Timberline High School in Lacey, Washington. Four girls wrestle for the Blazers, alongside a couple of dozen boys. They all wear black singlets unless they make it to the tournament finals, when they dress in special gold singlets decorated with a double-bladed axe, their school logo. 
 
Three Blazers wore gold in Marysville, and one of the three won his final match to claim the tournament championship at his weight class. The next week, at the Jaguar Invitational tournament in Puyallup, four Blazers took championships, and in the 126-pound weight class, the two wrestlers in the finals were both Blazers.
 
The regular season is winding down now, leading up to regionals and then states. Go Blazers! Shoot! Shoot!
Posted by Ellen

Long before football season has wound down, the winter sports are upon us. Basketball and hockey are in full swing, but what we see here is wrestling, or rather wrestling refereeing, as demonstrated for the enlightment of Ruby the cat, who chooses not to reveal whether or not she has chosen enlightenment.

Posted by Ellen

Above, circus clowns in their workclothes execute a wardrobe repair. Below, Allen, in workclothes from his wrestling days, hems his uniform pants.

Posted by Ellen

After Drexel's women's basketball team won the National Invitational Tournament on Saturday, beating the University of Utah in the final seconds of the game, students poured onto the court to celebrate.

Yes, that's the wrestling team down in front, but they'd come to cheer the Lady Dragons, not to rassle. They were wearing their singlets in a team effort aimed at winning $250 being offered by the athletic department to whichever of Drexel's non-basketball teams showed the most spirit at the game. The wrestlers didn't win–the prize went to the women's crew team for their dragon-themed "Feel the Fire" display, complete with sideways tilted baseball caps–but in our opinion, everybody who dresses in a singlet at a basketball game is a winner. And the wrestlers, whose season on the mat ended a few weeks ago, looked well-fed and frisky on the hardwood.

The basketball was championship-caliber as well. Utah led until late in the second half, when Drexel caught up but never could pull ahead by more than a point or two. With 21 seconds to go, Utah again had the lead and the ball. But one Drexel woman managed to tip Utah's throw-in, another snagged the ball, a third drove to the basket for a layup through traffic, and they all won their program's first post-season championship.

Posted by Ellen

The twins rolling around on the mat at lower left are imitating their father's winning wrestling moves at right, during Deering High School's annual alumni wrestling meet last week.

For many alumni of Deering's storied wrestling program, this meet is their only chance to lace up their old wrestling shoes and see if they've still got what it takes. Coach Kirk, who's been running the show at Deering for more than thirty years, matches up each alumnus against a member of the current varsity squad; the wrestling is vigorous but not particularly intense, because Coach always rigs the matchups to favor the old guys. This year, as in most years, the alumni won every bout.

Posted by Ellen

In the 1890s, when Thomas Eakins was teaching painting and anatomy at the Philadelphia Academy of Art, he spent a lot of time hanging around a local gym, watching the anatomy in action. This painting, "The Wrestlers," the final work in Eakins's sporting series, features not only a stylized moment in a wrestling match, very close to a final pin, but also some background characters watching and working and teaching and learning. In particular, the man in street clothes who is pointing at the wrestlers has been compared to Eakins himself--the coach in the gym, like the art instructor in the studio, draws attention to the wrestling action in hopes of elucidating salient matters of craft and human dynamics.

In 2011, meanwhile, wrestling season is again upon us, and one of the Stein wrestlers has stepped away from the gym for a few moments to share with us some observations about the Eakins wrestlers. "The guy on bottom," notes Allen, "should not be trying to peel the fingers off of the offensive opponent. He will be better off planting his right foot on the ground and arching on his head and trying to punch through back to his belly."

Coach in the background may be making the same point. But Mr. Eakins, the guy with the paintbrush--the guy in charge--apparently liked both these wrestlers exactly as they are.

Posted by Ellen

 

The kids used to have their friends over, and they'd go down in the basement and rassle and stuff. They're all grown up now, more or less; they're not living at home any more, and so we sold the house. Basement and all.

Posted by Ellen

 

Saturday marked the end of the Maine high school wrestling season; it was also the end of Hank Stein's high school wrestling career. His senior season peaked at just the right time, leading up to a fourth-place finish in the state Class A tournament.

He celebrated Sunday morning by eating all the pancakes he could eat.

In this picture, from a December match against Sanford High School, Hank prepares to finish off his opponent.

Posted by Ellen

After a rough day on the mat last Saturday at the tournament in Essex Junction, Vermont, Arjan Nekoie settles down in the bleachers with his family while the remaining wrestlers battle it out. Arjan rests his head in the lap of his little sister Shadhi, who leans back in the lap of their father, Bahman.