HITTING THE MAT: The Making of A State Champ or At Least A Good Man! (Blog 16)

Blog 16

Week 3 Regular Season Freshman Year

This last Monday night after another pleasant conversation at the front desk with Tony, the former state champ wrestler turned security guard, I headed into the school’s back gym to try to catch the last few minutes of Dakota’s practice.

I noticed two things when I got to the back gym. First, the basketball team wasn’t waiting to use the gym, and Coach Torres had his wrestlers working very hard through some really intense spinning drills.

The boys were grunting and groaning doing their best to push through the pain, dizziness, and oxygen deprivation. At one point, Coach Torres yelled, “Look at the freshman, Dakota, Go! Now that’s how you spin!”

The basketball team still hadn’t come in, so Coach Torres took the liberty to line the boys up for sprints. Once again, he pushed the boys to pass the pain barrier to do better and better. He yelled at them a few times that they are just going through the motions.


As a parent off to the side, I could see the extra effort the boys now put into the last few sprints. Coach’s little speech worked. Coach Torres finally blew the whistle to stop and pulled everyone in for the end of practice ritual.

Then, all of a sudden, something amazing happened… As the high school wrestlers formed a circle around Coach Torres, Dakota took off all alone to run an extra sprint all on his own.


As a father, I’m impressed with my boy, Dakota. And standing off to the side, saying nothing, but beaming loudly…

Practice is finally over, and on the way out, Dakota dropped and did some extra pushups in the school’s hallway. A few student-athletes on other sports teams who didn’t fully understand what Dakota was doing looked at him with confused looks. But none of that mattered because Dakota was determined to forge his own path through pure effort and not worry about being a try-hard. He’s going to change the paradigm of a “Try-Hard” to a badge of honor and a coat of steel that will help protect him out on that wrestling mat, and then later in life, too, as a good young man.

On the way home in the car that night we talked about Dakota making weight the next day for the official minimum weight class certification test. Dakota has never had to watch his weight or what he eats before… So this is going to be interesting to see how it all plays out. There is definitely going to be a learning curve here. Right now he’s a bit obsessed with making weight, and he can’t quite fully hear me yet when I talk to him about weight management for wrestling.

Hey, maybe I’m a bit of an outlier. But, after all, many years ago I won my first state championship in wrestling after jumping up two weight classes. So my wife and I are not fans of sucking weight for wrestling. I believe a wrestler should stay in shape all year long so that when wrestling season comes around, he or she is already in shape, and now only has to lose a few pounds to make his or her optimal weight class to compete.

So far, Dakota seems to be following much of my formula, too. But, only time will tell if it works for him as well as it worked for me…

And to tell you the truth, we were really nervous ourselves about Dakota making weight two nights with his certification test and then his first match the next night. My wife shared how it pained her to see Dakota hungry and barely eating for the last two days. He’s a growing boy, and he usually eats us out of house and home.

The good news is that he made weight for his certification test on Tuesday, and his first match on Wednesday night, too. He even had two pounds to spare. He weighed in at 124-pounds Wednesday night for the 126-pound weight class. I’d like to see him hang out at 126-127 pounds and then the night before competition be a little more disciplined and come in at 125.5 pounds the next day to wrestle the 126-pound weight class. I know this is not an easy thing to do, and it will take some time for Dakota to figure it out.

Well, guess what? Dakota’s first wrestling match of his life he had to go against a varsity returning state place winner. His first match ever was against a tough and outstanding wrestler. And on top of it all, it really bummed me out that neither my wife nor I would be there for him. My wife had to bring one of our daughters to her music recital. And I had to be at parent-teacher conferences for my job in New Britain, an hour away.

Thankfully one of my sisters showed up for him. She drove an hour to be there. Unfortunately, he lost against the returning state place winner. But he refused to be pinned. So that’s a good thing. And when I finally arrived near the end of the night, my younger sister had a smile on her face as she told me she missed this life. My sister was one of our wrestling managers when I wrestled.

Dakota also had some additional support in some friends from school that showed up, as well as some of his teammates’ families who were there, too, rooting for Dakota. I was bumming it that I missed Dakota’s first match ever. But I found comfort in the community feel that wrestling tends to bring out in the wrestling families. I was sharing some of my expertise on some of the matches I did see with a few of the families sitting around me on what to tell their sons on how to do better next time.

To my surprise, near the very end of the night, Dakota went back out to the center of the mat again. Another boy came out from the opposite side of the mat. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The whistle blew. Dakota took him down. Threw in a half-nelson, and would not let up until that other boy turned to his back. The referee’s hand slapped the mat. And then Dakota’s hand was raised.

Wow! Baptism by fire, I thought. On his first night ever of competing, he wrestled a returning state place winner, and then got back out there and earned a pin on his second kid.

All the hugs, handshakes, and conversations in the gym after the wrestling meet was over, as well as the car ride home, was pretty cool that night. While parting, my sister asked me to send her his schedule so she could try to be at the next one, too. Just like old times… but only different… I thought…

Thankfully, I got to record Dakota’s second match on my phone so my wife could see it, too, for when we got home. But when I tried to show it to her, for some reason, it had only recorded for two seconds and then stopped.

Dang… It’s tough and so humbling to be a parent sometimes… You should have seen the look on my wife’s face… as Dakota laughed in the background at my mishap and the look his mother was giving me… Life is never easy… is it?

Saturday came quick, and Dakota hopped on the team’s bus to head up to Waterford, the town in between two rivers, for his first varsity tournament. Unfortunately, I had to head the opposite direction to Avon in the Farmington Valley for a holiday party with a bunch of great authors and publishers that are in an association in which I am the President. I really enjoyed the holiday party and the great company, but my mind was occasionally drifting to the fact that I knew I was missing at least my son’s first match that day. Thankfully, his mom, aunt, and cousin were there to support him.

I got up to the tournament as fast as I could, and thankfully I only missed one of his matches. Sadly, he had come up against a fantastic kid who was beyond technically sound. According to Coach Rogers, every time Dakota had his opponent in some trouble, he just methodically worked his way out of it and scored on Dakota instead. It was a tough loss for Dakota. But a good learning experience.

Dakota was really mad that he lost and wouldn’t talk to anyone for a while. His mom was concerned. The coaches and I were happy. It’s good to see a kid mad that he lost. If he doesn’t get a bit mad at losing, then losing becomes easier and easier in the future to do… And that’s the exact opposite of what we’re all trying to do in raising up a good young man.

Dakota was soon up for his second match. My wife recorded it on her phone. She wanted to make sure that we didn’t have any technical difficulties this time if you know what I mean… Right away Dakota got a takedown with a move he learned at KT KIDZ Wrestling with my old buddy John Knapp. Then Dakota cradled up his opponent with some of the techniques that Coach Torres and Coach Rogers have been working on him with. I’m yelling out moves to Dakota from about an eighth of a mile away up in the stands that there is no way on earth he can hear. Everything is going exactly the way it’s supposed to go in this match, and Dakota wins 9-1.

Not too long after, Dakota is up for his 3rd match of the day. It is still early afternoon, and it has already been a long day. Dang… I know this kid Dakota is about to wrestle. He’s one of John Knapp’s wrestlers from KT KIDZ Wrestling. This kid is good. And he has been wrestling a long time.

Dakota battles hard, and on several occasions, it looks like Dakota has him, but this kid’s experience is just too much as he continuously finds a way to navigate out of trouble with Dakota and sails out front to a 9-2 victory over my boy. The next time they meet, Dakota will be more ready for him…

Unbeknownst to me at the time, one of my former co-workers in the educational world is in the audience on the opposite side of the gymnasium taking pictures of Dakota to send to me later. When I get the pictures, I’m grateful and don’t know what to say. She tells me that there is no need to say anything. And that that’s just what the wrestling community does for each other. No thanks needed. At this point, I get it because when I gave a wrestler a ride home that same night, his mom thanked me profusely, and I thought the same exact thing. No thanks needed. That’s just what we do here.

Well, speaking of that being just what we do here. I can’t wait to see what Dakota is going to do next week in wrestling… This raising a state champion or at least a good man someday is an amazing journey, wouldn’t you agree?



Learn more about Dan’s book, A Sprint to the Top, that DAN GABLE endorsed:



*Also, please comment down below, and share with your friends. Thanks.

Dan Gable Olympic Gold Medalist and Wrestler of the Century

Dan Blanchard, Teen Leadership, The Storm

Dan Blanchard is a bestselling author, and award-winning speaker,
and educator. www.DanBlanchard.net