HITTING THE MAT: The Making of A State Champ or At Least A Good Man! (Blog 27)

Off-Season Wrestling and Weeks 1 and 2 of Regular Sophomore Season

Wow! I can’t believe we’re back again on the mat for another high school wrestling season. It was one heck of an off-season of wrestling for Dakota. He was invited to wrestle in the Virginia Beach High School Nationals at the freshmen level for the 132-pound weight class. I told his coach I didn’t want him sucking weight again by trying to go 126. However, it didn’t help much. Dakota must have had a growth spurt because before I knew it, his weight was fluctuating between 135-140 pounds, and he was sucking weight anyway.

Thankfully, our regional training site for the Nationals was right down the road from where we live. Dakota was at the Silverback Wrestling room in Willimantic, Connecticut, five days a week for several months leading up to the Nationals. There were a lot of great wrestling coaches and great wrestlers at Silverback Wrestling.

However, this wrestling experience at Silverback was very different for me because the coaches locked the wrestling doors to the wrestling room and wouldn’t let any parents in the room. We parents had to watch what the kids called the “Sweat Box” workouts through a live video feed that didn’t have a good picture without any audio from another room. I totally understand and appreciate why the Silverback coaches have it set up that way. Still, as a former warrior and life-long learner, I would have preferred to have been in that wrestling room instead.

We are fortunate to have great friends. And I am so grateful for all the people who came forward to donate money to Dakota so he could wrestle in the Nationals this past spring. Many people helped it happen. Wrestling on a travel team in the off-season is very expensive. Dakota and I are especially grateful to the very, very generous donations from Peter Albert, Tim Victor, Vic Picone, and Genoveva Person.

Unfortunately, throughout the spring off-season wrestling, Dakota continued to have on and off knee problems. Fortunately, the injury didn’t sideline him too much. He wrestled in most of the practices leading up to Nationals and spent many nights icing his knee as a result.

Nationals in Virginia Beach finally came, and I was lucky enough to have a couple of personal days to take off from work. So, I took them, and my wife and I made the ten-hour car ride on a Wednesday night down to Virginia Beach. We got a great deal on the hotel for the first two nights because it was off-season at midweek rates. We arrived at our hotel in the wee hours of the morning on Thursday. And got a few hours of sleep with the sound of the ocean waves in the background.

We had an awesome room six floors up on the beachside, where we watched a few beautiful sunrises over the next few days. In between wrestling, we took a walk on the beach and wished that the water was a little bit warmer so we could have swum a little bit too. But, regardless, there is just something special about walking on the beach in just about any weather conditions.

The Nationals went as I expected. There were a whole bunch of excellent wrestlers there that had way more experience than Dakota and knew a lot more moves than him. On Thursday, Dakota got a bye first round. In the second round, he ran into a kid from West Virginia who was seeded 3rd in the nation. That kid was awesome. He was beating Dakota 14-2 before he pinned him in the 2nd period. That West Virginia boy would go on the place 2nd in the country. And the fact that Dakota scored upon him, and made it all the way to the 2nd period was pretty impressive.

On the next day, Dakota wrestled again. Dakota hit a beautiful inside leg trip giving him the first takedown of the match. We were pumped! Hooting and hollering! Then the kid hit a switch on Dakota for a two-point reversal. The hooting and hollering ceased when, in a flurry over moves, we saw Dakota make a rookie mistake and drop his head, causing it to be close to his knee. I silently yelled inside my own head, “NO!!!” as his opponent reached for Dakota’s head, cradled him, and pinned him.

We Connecticut people were stunned into silence. We eventually found our voice again when we complimented Dakota on getting the first takedown, and the lesson learned about hanging his head. I also shared with him how the same thing happened to me, too, when I was a freshman wrestling a stud. And I could still remember it like it was yesterday. And I never did it again.

That was Dakota’s second loss, so he was now out of the tournament. So, my wife Jennifer and I capped the night off by going out for a delicious seafood dinner for just the two of us. We ate at a restaurant on the pier where we spent more money than we should have.

The next day, Saturday, we watched a few hours of wrestling with Dakota. We also bumped into a couple of my old childhood friends Pat Moynihan and Jeff Oken whose boys were still wrestling in the tournament. It was awesome seeing them down there. However, Jenn and I had a long drive home, so we hit the road, and Dakota stayed with the team, as he should have. We reunited back in Connecticut late Sunday night after the boys watched the finals on Sunday and did their own long drive home in the team van.

Summer came, and Dakota kept wrestling at Silverback and traveling to other tournaments that were within driving distance in the northeastern part of the United States. We also inadvertently added a new wrinkle to Dakota’s training of a lot of pool wrestling every time we went to grandma’s house. Dakota just couldn’t help himself. He had caught the wrestling bug, and now every time he was in grandma’s pool, he had to wrestle someone. His ears seemed deaf to his sisters’ pleas that they didn’t want to wrestle him, so I found myself often doing the hand-to-hand pool combat with him instead.

He’s become strong and tough. And the pool seems to be gentle on his knee. However, during these hand-fighting sessions, I was continuously reminded of how much I need to get back on a regular exercise routine. I was actually sweating in the pool, trying to keep Dakota from dunking me.

As time keeps ticking, fall arrived after summer, just like it always does. And I found myself one night out with John Knapp of KT KIDZ again. You may remember from previous blogs that John is one of my old childhood friends and Junior Olympian teammates. John introduced wrestling to Dakota last fall at his wrestling club in Rocky Hill. During the time we spent together that night, John asked about Dakota and told me to bring him back down to the club for some more workouts. I was pumped. I knew getting in some fall practices again with John Knapp at KT KIDZ would help Dakota keep improving and guarantee him an amazing sophomore year of high school varsity wrestling.

Sadly, once again, things don’t always work out the way one hopes they will. During the first few workouts at KT KIDZ Dakota’s knee was really bugging him and he was very limited to what he could do. By the second week, we figured his knee problems weren’t going away, and there was something very wrong. The doctor agreed with us after looking at an MRI. Dakota had torn his meniscus in his right knee in three places, which was causing it to bend in half and was in the process of flipping over. His knee required immediate surgery.

Dang! His fall season with my old buddy John Knapp was cut short before it could even get started. Our dreams of him learning a bunch more over the fall and kicking a bunch more butt because of it over the winter regular high school season was dashed. And even worse, we then found out that he might also miss his winter high school season. How frustrating… Life is never easy… It rarely goes the way you plan… Every one of us has some kind of cross to carry… But, when considering the long-game, that’s what builds character, right? That’s what builds appreciation for what we do have, right? And that’s what makes young boys into good young men, right?

Wearing a brace and going to physical therapy a couple of times a week, Dakota was biting at the bit for the winter wrestling high school season to start. Because of his good progress at physical therapy, his doctor dropped him down to one time a week and has cleared him for some light drilling with the team to see how his knee feels.

The first day of the wrestling season finally arrived, and so did Connecticut’s first snowstorm. School and wrestling were canceled. The second day of wrestling season came right after that, and so did Connecticut’s second snowstorm. School and wrestling were canceled again. This delay was driving Dakota crazy. He wanted to get on that wrestling mat and test out his knee.

On Wednesday, the snowstorms stopped, and the schools and wrestling mats around Connecticut are back open. Dakota was pumped to finally be back on the mat, even if it was only light drilling. Dakota’s coaches, coach Torres and Coach Rogers were happy to see Dakota again on the mat. They have high expectations for their sophomore wrestler this season.

About twenty minutes into practice, in walked the newest addition to the coaching staff, Dakota’s dad. Me! That’s right. After all these years, I’m back on the mat. And I’m pretty excited about helping Dakota, and his team become the best wrestlers and young men they possibly can be. I laced up my wrestling shoes and jump into a circle run already going on with the young wrestlers. My replaced hip was feeling very weak, but I continued none-the-less. We then did some stance and motion, some sprawling, some technique, and then some live wrestling in which neither Dakota or I participated in. Both Dakota and I circulate the mat and offer advice to wrestlers when we found opportunities to do so.

What a great practice, even though Dakota and I didn’t live wrestle! On the short ride home in the car, though, Dakota tells me that he thinks he hurt his knee sprawling. He pulls his sweatpant leg up at home, and I see what looks like a new injury. The side of his knee has a bump on it. Dang…

Over the next few days, I’m still pumped to be back on the mat and sharing my knowledge and skills with the wrestling team. And believe it or not, I actually was offered three different wrestling coach jobs this year, even after all these years away from the sport. However, there was never any doubt in my mind of where I’d end up. I’m happy about being on the mat with my son, but I’m also concerned about him. I can see that he is in some discomfort, even though he is taking it easy. And he’s trying to hide it.

Saturday arrives, and just like last year, our team goes to Windham High School for another great workout. Dakota comes home wincing. Now the back of his knee hurts, and so does his calf. I’m worried.

Week two comes, and the running and calisthenics are a little bit better for me, but things don’t’ get better for Dakota. He’s not just dealing with his meniscus, and the bump on the side of his knee anymore. Now he also has a pain in the back of his knee, his calf, his tailbone, his Achilles and elbow. And he hasn’t even wrestled live yet because he’s on doctor’s orders for only light duty. Then the news gets even worse. Dakota’s physical therapist says Dakota’s progress has stopped. And now his knee is getting worse instead of better. Coach Torres benches Dakota. Physical therapy goes back up to twice a week again.

Dakota has been sidelined once again. And we’re all frustrated and wondering what’s going to happen next…



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Dan Gable Olympic Gold Medalist and Wrestler of the Century


Dan Blanchard, Teen Leadership, The Storm

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