DALLAS — “This sport isn’t always fun,” 15-year-old Royce Lavier said as we hoisted weights above our heads and started on our third lap of lunges around the weight room.
“Then why do you do it?” I asked, breathless, my legs burning.
“Because I like the hard work,” he said, “and the family, the community.”
Last week, the Dallas High School wrestling team invited me to spend an afternoon wrestling and working out with them.
In short: I got my butt kicked. Handed to me, in fact, by kids at least 12 years younger than I am.
Prior to that afternoon, I had considered myself in decent shape. I hike and rock climb frequently, but when I joined the wrestlers in their warm-up in the mat room that day, I knew about 10 seconds in I was in trouble. Just doing leap frogs for 30 seconds, which is where your partner kneels over and you leap over their head (think the game you used to play as a kid), had me out of breath and wondering why the heck I had agreed to this in the first place.
I asked myself that question again when I started to wrestle with sophomore Kimmy Holgate, who’s been wrestling for six years. She flattened me like a pancake every single time. So did two other kids who were easily 15 pounds lighter than me.
Talk about humbling.
Our work in the weight room left my legs shaky and arms that trembled when I attempted to lift them above my head. In 15 minutes, we did weighted lunges, squats, pull-ups to failure, ropes, bench press, squats to military press, upright rows, single leg squats, pushups and some other workouts that I can’t remember.
After all of that, we went back to the mat room and did more wrestling. That’s right: I had to try and wrestle Kimmy on legs that could barely hold me up. We worked out in groups of three, where I would wrestle Kimmy and Royce in succession, and then rested while they wrestled.
Practice lasted for two hours, and I didn’t stop moving unless it was to collapse on the bench to catch my breath for a second and drink some water.
At the end of practice, we all gathered in a circle and did more push-ups. I was like, why? Why do we have to do more push-ups? They chanted something while they did push-ups, and I honestly can’t remember what they said — something about pride, I believe — because I was too busy trying not to fall on my face.
When I got home that night, I ate an entire box of mac ’n’ cheese and was still hungry. I slept for nine and a half hours and woke up sore to the touch. It was an effort to move in the days that followed.
Wrestling has always been an intriguing sport to me; the athleticism a wrestler must possess — the knowledge of how to move your body, the bodily control you must have, the strength, power and endurance that it takes to be a good wrestler — is impressive. So is the mental aspect of it all. To push yourself when you think you have nothing left.
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, the number of kids participating in wrestling is steadily increasing each year.
In 2017-18, boys high school wrestling programs increased by 760 wrestlers, for a total of 245,564 wrestlers overall across the nation. Additionally, 146 schools added a boys wrestling program for a total of 10,775 schools with wrestling programs.
Girls high school wrestling is also seeing a growth in participation for the 29th year in a row.
In 2017-18, 16,562 girls participated in wrestling, increasing by 1,975 from the year before. High schools that offer girls high school wrestling has increased by 260 schools, with a total of 2,351 schools.
Oregon is ranked fifth for girls wrestling participation.
It’s no wonder why the sport is growing in popularity. Wrestling teaches kids discipline, hard work and how to be pushed to their limit without giving in to pain, whether it’s mental or physical.
In my year spent as the I-O’s sports reporter, I’ve witnessed coaches crying along with their wrestlers in moments of victory or defeat; I’ve seen wrestlers laugh hysterically one moment and the next, break down in tears after a match. I’ve seen wrestlers nearly implode with fury, screaming through clenched teeth after they lost a match they were so sure they would win.
Wrestling brings out a high level of raw emotion that I don’t see nearly as often in the other sports I cover.
I have a newfound respect and admiration for this sport. As Royce put it: wrestling, and sports in general, provides kids a community to be in and a family to belong to.
Thank you to DHS head coach Tony Olliff, and to the Dragons wrestling team, for allowing me to practice with you. I hope you all enjoyed how silly I looked trying and wildly failing to get out of Kimmy’s holds, because I sure did.