HITTING THE MAT: The Making of A State Champ or At Least A Good Man! (Blog 31)

Blog 31

Week 6 of Regular Sophomore Season

Week six is here, and the struggle for Dakota’s knee to heal in time continues. We’re hearing a lot of different things from a lot of different people about what to expect for his recovery time and whether or not he’ll be able to wrestle in the State Tournament at the end of the season. We’re also going back and forth on what this all means for Dakota’s off-season wrestling as well. In addition, I’m kind of bumming it because in my sophomore year at 132-pounds, I had the whole season to wrestle with our 138-pound senior captain, and it made me a lot better. I was psyched that Dakota would also have this same opportunity that I had as a sophomore, but unfortunately, surgery on his knee has destroyed that opportunity of growth for him. Life isn’t fair.

I don’t remember wrestling being this complicated when I was a high school wrestler. All I did was just wrestle. That’s it. Just wrestle. We didn’t have all of these mental acrobatics going on with, “Well, what if this happens?” or, “What if that happens?” It feels like it’s just too much drama. I wonder if I’m feeling like this because I’m a parent of a wrestler now instead of the wrestler.

In a way, I hope it’s because I’m a parent now. I don’t want Dakota going through all this drama too with all of these, “What if” scenarios that seem to be developing on an almost daily basis. And sadly, I find myself in conversations almost daily involving this topic with my wife, who doesn’t always see things as I do. And I know that some of these conversations are taking place either in front of Dakota, or at least within ear-shout of him. I hope we’re not stressing him out. Wrestling is hard enough, and being an injured wrestler certainly is hard enough without all the adults in one’s life add stress to it.

Well, like a trooper, even among all the craziness, I walk into practice on Monday and find Dakota riding the bike again on the side of the mat, trying to fight his way back up and hopefully bring his weight back down. The practice goes well. At practice today, we have our school’s former first and only Open State Champion’s father watching. He’s there to pick up his daughter, one of the wrestling team’s managers.

This phenomenon above is quite common in the sport of wrestling, where a younger sister comes out to help manage the wrestling team and then continues to stick around after her older brother graduates. I know it happened with my three younger sisters all those years ago. There is a really strong bond in the wrestling world that makes people want to stick around.

The father of our team’s first Open State Champion was a nice addition to practice on Monday. He kept yelling out to the kids encouraging them to work harder. It brought a nice vibe to the air. And I think everyone did work harder that day. I think we should have that father here more often. And he sure looked like he was having fun, too. He was great for team morale!

During the practice, one could see that Dakota was getting restless, though. He just didn’t seem himself. I wasn’t liking it much. I wish I could help him out of the tough spot he’s in. But he has to carry most of the weight himself on this one. It’s all part of wrestling helping him to become a better man through handling tough times and disappointments that are sure to continue well after his wrestling days are over.

At one point during practice, Dakota came out onto the mat to show a younger wrestler a move, but then the two of them goofed off some, and Coach Rogers had to yell at him to get off the mat, be careful with his knee, and get back on the bike.

I don’t think Dakota liked being yelled at… But, sometimes, that’s what needs to be done… The strongest steel has to endure the hottest fires, right?

When I walked into the wrestling room on Tuesday, I saw Dakota alongside the mat on the bike, pedaling away again. I could see on his face that something was very wrong. I asked him about his weight, and it was still up there. So I wondered if he was worried that he wasn’t dropping the weight fast enough.

No…, it seemed more than just a weight loss problem to me. But he wouldn’t tell me what had him in such a funk. Later on, I found out that what was causing Dakota all that distress was one of the oldest problems of mankind. This problem has been around forever. And it happens to all of us men more often than we would like. Dakota was having some relationship challenges with his girlfriend… Geez… More drama… And once again, my heart breaks for him, but once again, there’s nothing I can do about it…Dang.

It’s crazy how much relationship problems can make it tougher to wrestle. I remember a time back in high school when I was having girlfriend problems. And how much it frustrated me one particular night when my opponent refused to stay pinned. It felt like the whole world was against me, life wasn’t fair, and a lot of my strength had been stolen from me. I still won that match against the other team’s captain. Heck, I think I might have even pinned him, but it sure felt like it was way harder to do it that night than it should have been.

Later in the week, Coach Scot Roger’s wife, Val Rogers, will tell me that way back in their youth, Scot actually broke up with her once during wrestling season because he said the whole dating thing was a distraction. Scot wanted to focus solely on wrestling so he could do his best, and dating was taking some of his energy and attention away from wrestling he thought. Thankfully, back in those days, most athletes, including Coach Rogers, didn’t wrestle year-round. So the dating of Valerie would eventually be okay again. And that’s a good thing because it led to their son, who is the 138-pound senior captain of our team this year. And he’s an outstanding wrestler.

Okay, back to Dakota. On the car ride home, Dakota still wouldn’t talk about it, but he did open up enough to talk about his physical therapy session of that day. His doctor and the physical therapist thinks his knee is making good progress. So, now they want to speed up the recovery of his right thigh muscle that had atrophied. His right quadricep is still noticeably smaller than his left. So, his medical team wants to try the tourniquet strategy on him.

I’m not familiar with the tourniquet strategy outside of what it meant to me in combat training during my time in the army as a frontline infantryman. So Dakota had to explain it to me. He shared how the tourniquet strategy slows down the blood flow. And this forces the thigh to work harder during exercise, which then forces the quadricep muscles to pop back out so it can regain some of its former size and shape. Regaining full strength would eventually follow later though a lot more resistance training.

This strategy sounded interesting. I’m looking forward to seeing the results. Although, I guess I’ll have to get back to you in later blogs to let you know how well it works…

Wednesday night’s match was much anticipated by everyone, including myself. We were going to my old battlegrounds where I had terrorized the rest of the state during my wrestling days, which was my alma mater East Hartford High School. We had already bumped up against my old team in an earlier tournament this season. We lost to them in points but outwrestled them in head-up matches. Tonight, we were hoping to do even better than just outwrestling them. However, we know that they will be making adjustments and be gunning for us this time around.

When I got to East Hartford High School, I saw that my son’s team was already there and getting ready to warm up for the match. I also saw my old buddy, Todd Albert, the head wrestling coach of East Hartford, and my former teammate who had also been a captain with me of our 1988 team. Later on that night, I will learn from Todd’s wife, Kim, that Todd had just won his 100 match as a head wrestling coach. Todd is so modest. I wish he had told me right then and there so I could have congratulated him right there on the spot.

I also ran into a few other old East Hartford friends of mine who I went to high school with in Kelly Boyd and Jason Bedard. Kelly and I had a great talk before the match, where I learned her boy would be wrestling our 138-pound senior captain, the son of Coach Rogers and his wife, Valerie. As I mentioned earlier, he’s pretty good, so I gave my old friend Kelly a heads-up that her boy was going to have a tough match. After the meet was over, I then ran into Jason Bedard, whose boy wrestled our jayvee 120-pounder. His boy was only 111-pounds and brand new, so it was a really tough match for him too as he also lost to one of our boys. However, I’m sure it was a good learning experience for both Kelly and Jason’s sons that night.

It was great seeing my old buddies Todd, his assistant coach Nick another East Hartford former wrestling who I’ve come to know better over the last several years, and Kelly, and Jason again.

However, what was not so great that night was that we got outwrestled on the same East Hartford mats that I used to own as a wrestler in my youth. East Hartford had a much larger team than we had and thus had some strategic options available. A bunch of our guys that won last time went up against different East Hartford kids this time and lost. We made a lot of rookie mistakes, and East Hartford capitalized on many of them. Coach Rogers was upset that we were looking into half-nelsons all night long. Coach Torres was mad that some of our kids were being pushed around out there on the mat, and acting soft. And I was frustrated that nothing seemed to go our way tonight.

Well, to be honest with you, there were actually at least a few things that did go our way tonight. First, our female wrestler who we bumped up to the 170-pound class wrestled a boy who was a lot bigger than her. No one thought she had a chance. But she went out there and pinned the kid even though he had just previously slammed her hard on the mat. One of our jayvee kids who hasn’t had a lot of success yet went out there and pinned his kid too. These were great moments of the night that at least momentarily pumped us all up.

Oh, yeah… and there was also one more thing… every now and then I overheard voices of people on the benches and in the stands whispering out-loud that I had once wrestled at this school. That was kind of cool. Also, our 160-pounder approached me and said out loud that he’s pretty sure that this is the school that I used to wrestle at. That was even cooler, especially when I answered that it was, and it was also the school that I won two wrestling state championships, and one football state championship. I figured he would like that since he was also both a football player and a wrestler.

On the way out the door, another former East Hartford wrestler, Tyler LeBlanc, who refereed tonight’s match, told me he did some homework and had asked some other referees how the rules apply to Dakota’s situation of being injured in regards to the States. He told me that the rule says Dakota has to participate in eight matches to go to States. And that participation means more than just weighing in and then forfeiting his matches until he’s ready to wrestle again. He has to actually wrestle in eight matches… Dang… another one of our plans blown out of the water again. Things just got a little bleaker for Dakota.

Dang again! Things keep getting crazier. It’s Thursday, and I’ve been waiting for word from my wife, Jenn, on what the doctor said about Dakota today. On the drive home, my phone finally rings, and it’s Jenn with bad news. She tells me the doctor said it will be another month before he releases Dakota to wrestle.

I sigh and say, “Well, I guess that’s it. Dakota’s season is over.” Another month will put us way too close to the States for Dakota to still get in his eight official matches.

However, there is still something bugging me. My old comrade and teammate, John Knapp from KT KIDZ in Rocky Hill, who I wrestled in the Junior Olympics with all those years ago, still thinks Dakota can just show up at the States and wrestle. Also, an email I received from Steve Merlino, the President of the CIAC said that it was a layered answer, but after sifting through his email, it sort of looks like Dakota might still be able just to show up and wrestle at the States as long as he makes weight for the weight class he was certified for at the beginning of the season.

Jenn says that Dakota is upset and wouldn’t even talk to her on the ride home from the doctors’ office. I can’t blame him for being frustrated, but he should have at least manned-up enough to talk to his mom on the way home. However, I know that’s easier said than done. Heck, I’m getting stressed out by this season too, so I can only imagine what it must be doing to the teenage boy who is going through it.

I finally arrive at practice to see how Dakota is doing, and I once again see him on the bike. “Good,” I think. He hasn’t thrown in the towel yet. He’s still trying to rehabilitate his knee, get in shape, make weight, and be part of this team.

After I see Dakota, I next go see Coach Torres and Coach Rogers. Both are looking at like, “What the heck just happened?” And I can’t blame them either for this disbelief and frustration. They’ve got a pretty good wrestler who could have helped the team win some matches this year just sitting on the bench.

“What are we going to do, coaches?” I ask them.

“He’s going to make weight. We’re going to officially weigh him in starting this Saturday. And we’re bringing him to the State Tournament with our fingers crossed,” quipped Coach Rogers with a little bit of a fire in his eyes.

I was happy to see that we were going to do everything that we could and then let the chips fall where they will. However, I know Dakota is going to have trouble making the 134-pound weight class in just two days from now. I wish he had followed my advice and brought his weight down one pound a week starting a month ago. I know that’s a hard thing to do during the holiday season, especially when you’re injured and can’t wrestle. But sometimes you just have to figure out how to do things now, so later becomes easier. Pay now so you can play later. Or you play now, but you’ll then have to pay later.

I had to leave practice early today because I had to go record my weekly Mindalia TV show. I interview people from all over the world on some of the great things they’re doing to try to make the world a better place. So, I didn’t get to see Dakota again until later that night back at home. My wife, Jenn, told me that Dakota was still in a bad mood. I approached him and asked him what his weight was after practice.

He said, “145-pounds.” My heart sank again. It’s over. There’s no way he’ll make the 134-pound weight class in just 36 hours from now. This season is driving me crazy.

Then all of a sudden, I notice the corners of Dakota’s mouth drawing up a bit. And Jenn’s too, but not as dramatically as Dakota’s “Hey, what’s going on here?” my facial expression asks. Dakota smiles and says that he’s actually on weight. He weighed 133.8 pounds after practice today. Jenn and Dakota were messing with me, and they almost got me on that one. Well, maybe they did get me a little bit…

After releasing a huge smile myself, I blurt out, “How is that even possible?” Dakota smiles and says that he thinks he lost six or seven pounds riding the exercise bike today. I can’t believe it. “How the heck did he do that?” is all I can think. After I gather myself, I blurt out, “You’re going to make weight on Saturday!”

Maybe not… I arrive at practice on Friday and approach Dakota on his exercise bike at the side of the mat once again to ask him what his weight is, and he answers that it’s 138 point something.

Dang… I knew Dakota making weight yesterday was too good to be true. I feared that he’d be back up today. And now my fears have come true…

Casey Yates

This week’s Saturday tournament was really cool. We went to the 9th Annual Casey Yates Invitational Tournament with 14 other teams. It was held at my wife, Jenn’s alma mater, Lyman Memorial, where she was the first graduating class from that building when it was new.

Casey Yates was a former Lyman wrestler. He had become very good at wrestling after attending one of Shirzad Ahmadi’s summer camps, his mom told me. Casey was also an accomplished scholar in high school and college, graduating from the University of Hartford summa cum laude. He had a great sense of humor and was also a singer and songwriter who released several original cd’s. He was a post-baccalaureate pre-med student at the University of Texas at Dallas when an accident took him from all of us way too soon.

I had a wonderful conversation with Casey’s mom, Marie Quinn, and her friend Becky who were working behind the memorial table. They were such a delight to talk to. Marie and Becky really got it when I talked about some of the trials and tribulations of being a parent to a wrestler. They are both a testament of people finding a community through wrestling and then sticking around to continue to do good in this world. My hat goes off to Marie, Becky, and the

Marie Quinn and Becky

hundreds of others who make this annual tournament possible who are out there doing good on a daily basis. We miss you, Casey. Keep shining your goodness down on all of us, my fellow warrior.

We had a pretty good day at the tournament. Dakota actually made weight somehow. Our 138-pound senior captain took first. Our 182-pounder dramatically won first place through a really cool move pinned his opponent in the first period in the finals. Our 160-pounder took third. And our 113-pounder, a first-year wrestling shocked and rocked that gymnasium with his gutsy performance that landed him in the medal rounds of fighting for 3rd and 4th place. We also had several other of our young wrestlers show some guts out there and win a few matches as well.

I even got to share this pretty cool day with my wife and two youngest daughters as they came and hung out with us wresters before and after their soccer games.

It was also a great day because CIAC President, Stephen Merlino showed up and I was able to speak to him one-on-one to clarify his email about Dakota’s situation. He basically said that as long as Dakota is healthy, gets ten practices in, and makes his certified weight class, he can still wrestle in the States. How freaking cool is that? There is still hope!

It was a very long day, but a great day for our team. We got back on our team bus for the second time that day in the dark. We were all tired, but satisfied with the day. Coach Rogers commented on the bus ride home that Dakota must be biting at the bit to wrestle again after watching a day of wrestling like this. And he was. And I know this is true because he told me so on the car ride home from our high school without me even asking him about it. Once again, there is still hope…

Even after all the craziness, it was a good week of wrestling. I’d like to leave you all now with a poem from an unknown author that Casey Yates’ mom Marie Quinn gave to me.

The Wrestling Parent

Parents in wrestling are courageous – it’s true:

They feel all the pain that their boys must go through.

At home, when he diets, they wish it could stop,

Yet know he must do it to stay on top.

Excuses for losing they will never endure,

“Don’t blame the ref, son, because of the score.

The coach, he will show you the best way to move,

Keep working in practice if you want to improve.”

At dual meets you’ll see them whispering a prayer,

As their boys must compete with no one else there.

Whatever the outcome- Mom cheers with deep pride,

While Dad- you will notice- stands right by his side.

They’ll drive to a tournament; many miles away,

To witness a son who’s prepared for this day.

Their boy, he has trained, with all of his might,

Having hopes of becoming a champion tonight.

But should he fall short, at his corner you’ll find,

A Mother and Father- supportive and kind.

They teach that through wrestling he’ll learn about life,

Yes, living is filled with both triumph and strife.

Now if you are searching for people who care,

Just look by a mat, they’ll always be there.

Such love for the sport is truly inherent,

That’s why we salute, The Wrestling Parent!


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


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*** Finally, check out the very 1st blog of, Hitting the Mat: https://tinyurl.com/w68ubf8

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