On Feb. 13, 2013, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recommended to remove wrestling as one of its 25 “core sports” from the 2020 games and beyond. This shocked the wrestling community and sports enthusiasts worldwide because wrestling is one of the original sports in the Olympics and participated in worldwide. In 2012, more than 70 countries wrestled in the Olympics, and at its highest point, 58.5 million people watched Olympic wrestling on TV. Wrestling is considered to be the national sport in Iran, Bulgaria, Russia, Turkey, and Japan.
Wrestling meets all the criteria set forth by the International Olympic Committee for what constitutes a “core sport.” In every country where man exists, there is some form of organized wrestling—and unlike many of the new modern sports, you don’t need to have money to wrestle. All you need is a soft surface and some shoes.
Unlike other sports where multi-million dollar contracts are prevalent once you become professional—like baseball, football, basketball, hockey, etc.—wrestling is similar to swimming, track and field, and ice skating, where the pinnacle of athletic achievement and career is the Olympics.
The reason given by the IOC for recommending removing wrestling was, “It isn’t what is wrong with wrestling, rather it is what is so right about other sports.” This sounds like a nonchalant and dismissive high school breakup, and clearly the IOC didn’t quite realize that picking a fight with wrestlers worldwide is not a good idea. The sport welcomed into the Olympics in wrestling’s place, rather, is the pentathlon, which includes shooting, swimming, fencing, equestrianism, and cross-country running. When I heard about this, I had to Google what the pentathlon even was. In last year’s Olympic games, less than half the number of countries even participated in pentathlon, as opposed to wrestling.
The summer of my high school freshman year, I suppose I was fairly typical: skinny, zit-faced, and, like most kids, insecure and not sure of exactly where I fit in or what I was going to do with my spare time.
I decided to try out wrestling at San Luis Obispo High School with a bit of reluctance because it looked like fighting with rules, and I didn’t want to get my butt kicked in front of my peers.
Having a fairly outgoing nature, I decided to jump into the action and attend my first practice with socks, a gym shirt, and basketball shorts. The warm-up drills included running, jumping jacks, pushups, sit ups, cartwheels, arm crawls, pull ups, rope climbing, bear crawls, front head springs, neck-ups, and stretching. I recall barely being able to mentally make it through the warm up but after catching my breath during the stretching, I got really nervous for what was going to happen the remainder of the practice. My coach, Rob Nieto, partnered me with a girl who was about my same size—say, 130 pounds—and it was her second year wrestling.
I didn’t know what to do, so I timidly approached her in my awkward wrestling stance that probably looked like a baby deer trying to walk for the first time—and the worst thing to happen to a young kid did: She threw me on my back and pinned me in front of about 30 peers. About half of them started laughing. I got up and started laughing too and asked her how she did her wrestling move (which was called a “head and arm”). She showed me and let me practice the move. I then wrestled again with some other people and my goal was simply to not get thrown to my back. Luckily I achieved at least that in my first practice.
Throughout the next day, I kept thinking about what I would have done differently and I started thinking about the body dynamics and how leverage joints and positions in wrestling mattered, and for some reason I was eager to get back into the wrestling room.
Prior to wrestling, I had never worked out, never been athletic, and I honestly felt somewhat lost and that I didn’t really “fit in” anywhere. For some reason, I continued to show up to wrestling practice and slowly fell in love with everything about the challenge of the sport.
After hearing my coach talk about what it takes to become a great wrestler, I decided that I wanted to be great. In fact, my goal was to be California state champion. When a kid “buys in” to wrestling, his or her entire life changes; food is viewed as fuel and something that affects your weight. Pain and pressure is something that you need to not hide from but to manage and conquer. Every waking moment is a training opportunity. I remember doing lunges from class to class, or squeezing a ball in class to improve my grip, going to bed in my head gear and singlet so I would get more comfortable with the equipment and somehow would improve my matches.
As I became more committed to the sport and committed to doing everything I could to prepare myself to win, I found myself starting to believe that I deserved to win, that I belonged on the podium at the end of the tournament, and that I was better prepared than guys who’d even wrestled for a few years longer than me. I was lucky enough to have a wrestling mat in my garage growing up, a brother who wrestled, and a friend named Dan Martinez who later became a state champion in freestyle and Greco-Roman who happened to live only a few blocks away. Dan and his family would take me all over the state and country to compete in tournaments, and when we weren’t traveling, we would train together. In the process, he became one of my closest friends.
Wrestling had more of a transformative effect on my life than all my schooling, religion, and parents combined. And I know that I’m not alone.
But we don’t have to stand on the sidelines. To preserve and grow the ancient and transformative sport of wrestling, we must do the following: First, we must invest more in female wrestling programs. Second, we have to create more ways to provide business-sponsorship value to infuse more money into the sport. We must also make the rules easier to understand for a broader audience. Lastly, if the sport has impacted your life, give back by becoming a more active fan; donate to any of the local programs.
Our community is so lucky to be one of three in California to have a Division 1 wrestling program—at Cal Poly—and one of 30 to have a junior college program—at Cuesta. I encourage you to check out a match, and I promise you exciting competition in its purest form. ∆
Aaron Steed is co-owner of Meathead Movers. Aaron and a group of other local professionals/former wrestlers started a nonprofit wrestling club in 2004 to offer college-level coaching to local youth wrestlers. Send comments to the executive editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.