HITTING THE MAT: The Making of A State Champ or At Least A Good Man! (Blog 25)

Blog 25

Week 12

Regular Freshmen Season


      This is it! Dakota’s last week. Do or die. Right here. Right now. No second chances for him to end his freshman wrestling season on a good note.

I’ve been bringing him to the gym when I can to ride the stationary bike lightly, so he doesn’t hurt his knee anymore, and hopefully get him to burn some calories so he can bring his weight down from being ten pounds over his weight class. The car rides to the gym and back home have given us some time again to talk in the car like we used to in the fall when we were driving back and forth to and from KT KIDZ Wrestling in Rocky Hill with my old buddy Coach John Knapp.

During one of our recent car rides, I shared an experience with Dakota of when I was a young coach who was entirely against something that some the older coaches in the state were doing with their wrestlers in making them lose a massive amount of weight. When I protested, they all looked at me like I was a naïve young green coach who didn’t’ get it yet. They said, “Everyone does it.” And then to make matters worse, their wrestlers had a lot of success, which then just reinforced that wrong that they were doing to be somehow right. I remember responding to those coaches, “Just because everyone is doing it, doesn’t mean it is right.”

After that story, I shared with Dakota another similar experience I went through many years later as a newly elected local politician. I was the only one in a particular public hearing protesting and arguing against a specific action that was about to take place. Some of my counterparts felt they needed to educate me on how this sort of thing happens all the time. Even though I was green to the political game, I responded with, “Just because it happens all the time, doesn’t mean it’s right.”

I’m hoping from these talks, and hopefully the many more still to come with my son, Dakota, that I’m positively influencing him when he’s called upon to have some moral courage of his own. Hopefully, he’ll remember some of these conversations and find a way to dig deep and do the morally right thing through protecting the little guy who doesn’t have a voice or maybe a vastly diminished voice.

I know wrestling and how it builds physical, emotional, and psychological courage is an excellent base to work from for someone who hopes to have some moral courage of their own someday also.

Now on another note. Dakota’s doctor appointment was scheduled for this Thursday this week. Unfortunately, regardless of whatever decision the doctor makes regarding his knee, Dakota will still be unable to wrestle in the State Championships because he won’t be able to get in any practices. So, we took a chance and moved his appointment up to this Monday. This in itself is risky because it gives his knee less time to heal before he sees the doctor.

However, somehow, Dakota gets the go-ahead from the doctor on Monday to wrestle again. Obstacle defeated! Now he somehow has to make weight and get back into “wrestling shape.” Two very tall orders…

And you know how life can never be easy or straight forward? Well, a snowstorm rolled in on Tuesday that canceled school and wrestling practice. And it’s also threatening to cancel school and practice the next day as well. Right before the flakes come in, I tell Dakota to get into my Subaru, which is excellent in the snow, because I’m taking him to the gym again.

He’s frustrated and says, “What the heck? I can’t seem to catch a break here,” as he’s getting into the car. While driving down the road, I share with him that it’s not about what happens to you that matters, but what you do about it that counts the most. It’s how you respond to adversity that makes or breaks the man or woman.

And right now, we’re going to respond with him getting in a workout at the gym, then later, we’ll squeeze in another workout through some drilling. And then we’ll do the third workout tonight when we’re shoveling the snow off of our 640-foot dirt driveway. As for tomorrow, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

        Wednesday does come, and we find another obstacle in our way. his school does open with a delay. But that is not the problem. Because school and sports were canceled on Tuesday, the school needs to make up a basketball game today on top of the game it already has scheduled for today. The basketball game that is scheduled for today will be played in the front gym. The make-up game will be in the back gym. Thus, the wrestlers don’t have a gym to practice in today on this week leading up to the States. This is a vital practice that Dakota cannot miss.

Luckily, Coach Torres and Coach Rogers commandeer a small yoga room for the wrestlers to literally squeeze into and squeeze in a quick hard practice. It got really hot in there. They fogged up all the mirrors. And it sort of felt a little bit like those old Windham wrestling practices of the old days. A fact that I’m sure wasn’t lost on my son’s two coaches who both are former Windham wrestlers.

Thursday, the last day to squeeze in a practice before the States completion, and we have just received an early morning email that we’re back in the yoga room again today… Hmm… On the week leading up to the Wrestling State Championships… we don’t have our gym still…

Dakota’s alarm went off at 5:30 this morning as it does on every morning that he has school. However, something is different about him this morning. He looks like he’s in really rough shape. He looks exhausted, banged up, and scratched all up. What he’s trying to do is no joke. He’s trying to get back in wrestling shape in less than a week, while simultaneously losing ten pounds so he can make weight on Friday, and then again on Saturday.

Dakota has been seeded #10 for the tournament. That’s a great accomplishment for a freshman wrestling in the varsity States to be seeded or ranked in the top 10 in his weight class. If my memory serves me correct, my freshman year at his weight class, I was seeded #7, and I knocked off the #10 guy on the Friday night of the tournament. If things haven’t changed since I wrestled, Dakota will not have an easy match Friday night. He’ll have to do the opposite, and better than what I did by beating the #7 kid just to survive and get to the next day.

Friday morning I didn’t get a chance to see Dakota before I left for the gym and then work. When I finally do get a chance to see him on Friday night right after weigh-ins at Bristol Central High School, I find out he somehow made weight, but now he looks even worse than he did on Thursday morning. He looks exhausted and battered as he had been in a low-grade Rocky Balboa fight already before this State Wrestling Tournament has even started.

At the States, I find out many things have changed since I wrestled and coached so many years ago. Multiple times, parents asked me questions where I gave them outdated answers from the old days. After a while, I had to preface each answer I gave with, “Back in the old days…. but we better check with Coach to be sure…”

       Another thing I got wrong was that Dakota wasn’t seeded or ranked 10th. He was actually seeded 11th, which is even worse news because instead of going against the #7 guy, he now has to go against the #6 guy. And the #6 wrestler is from Bristol Central, and he’s outstanding. Dakota gets out there and does his best on Friday night versus this guy, but Dakota is rusty from not wrestling over the last six weeks, and this wasn’t the first match we wanted him to have for his comeback. The Bristol Central guy is too much, and he defeats Dakota. I am extremely sad for Dakota because after all he did to make it back, he’s now he’s done. Just like that.

However, something really cool happens. I find out I’m once again wrong and using outdated information. Dakota will be back in the morning to wrestle again. I am so relieved and happy that I was wrong this time. Another cool thing happens, too. As I’m walking around the gymnasium, I bump into one of my oldest East Hartford friends Pat Moynihan who I hadn’t seen in a very long time. It turns out that his son is a wrestler, too. Right after I leave Pat, moments later, I bump into another old schoolmate of mine who I also hadn’t seen in a very long time, Jeff Oken. He, too, has a son who is a wrestler there. Wow! How cool, I think. When I was a boy, Jeff was on my wrestling team, and I used to work out with Pat from time to time. And now we’re all here watching out sons wrestle.

Saturday morning Dakota made weight. And as I was watching Dakota wrestle his first match, Pat Moynihan slid up next to me and said, “Dakota going to win this one. He’s a grinder. He’ll grind this one out. He’ll wear that kid out, and win.” Pat was right. Dakota grinded the whole match and would not let up pressure on his opponent for one moment. Dakota won 5-0. Great match. So cool to have Pat there to share it with. Later, Jeff told me he had watched it from the stands.

Next, Dakota had to wrestle the #5 wrestler from Bristol Eastern, the team that will go on to win this State Wrestling Tournament. Dang… why did he have to get this guy? On top of it, Dakota is at the trainer station with a big bag of ice on his arm. He injured it in his last match.

Dakota is concerned and doesn’t know how he’s going to wrestle his next opponent.

       I say, “Dakota, everyone here is hurting from something. Everyone here has some kind of nagging injury at this point of the season. Now it just comes down to mental toughness. You have to put the pain behind you and go to war with this next kid. You have to have one mission right now. And that is to make this next kid respect you. Make him believe that he was just in the fight of his life. You do that, and I don’t care if you win or lose. Let the chips fall where they will. If you earn his respect, you have won regardless of what the score is.”

I think my talk helped. Against this awesome wrestler, Dakota almost got the first takedown of the match, but great wrestlers find ways to land on top, and that’s what his kid did somehow. At the end of the first period, the score was only 2-0. After the second period, Dakota went into the third period only losing 5-2. His coach told him to pick down. And unfortunately, Dakota couldn’t get out, and even got turned once for a couple of back points causing him eventually to lose 8-2. It was a great match. And a great wrestler couldn’t pin Dakota. That in itself is a victory. Later that night at home while eating ice cream with the family, I asked Dakota how he kept the score so close. He smiled and responded that he made the other guy respect him. His mom laughed and said, “Great answer!”

Although the weekend was a very long one. It was pretty cool watching Dakota wrestle again. It was also pretty cool watching several of Dakota’s teammates place in the States. One of Dakota’s teammates who had been seeded #2 was feeling down a bit because he didn’t make it to the finals. This kid Ben is a great kid, and there is no doubt in my mind that he will go off and be a very good man someday that will make this world a better place. I said, “Ben, you don’t have to be a state champ. You have already won in life because this sport has taught you to be comfortable with hard work and taking responsibilty. And that’s all you really need. Take those two things forward in life, and you’re going to do just fine.”

During this long weekend, it was also very cool hanging out with Pat Moynihan and Jeff Oken again and watching their boys place in the States, too. Their sons are outstanding wrestlers and even had to face off against each other in the medal rounds.

Now that the wrestling season is over for Dakota… what’s next? I heard Dakota’s coach ask him if he wanted to work out with his teammates who qualified to wrestle in the State Open Tournament next week. He said, “Yes.” However, I also heard that another snow storm is coming, too.

Hmm… Maybe Dakota’s season and this blog isn’t entirely over after all… neither are his challenges… stay tuned for whatever is next… it should be interesting…


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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