Monday, May 1, 2017

CHLOE'S GRADUATION BALLOONS

http://www.collegiateparent.com/blog/chloes-graduation-balloons/

This essay has been published by CollegiateParent.com. Click on the above photo to reach the story. As always, thank you for reading.



Thursday, April 20, 2017

PRIVATE THOUGHTS

Written by Craig Foster, Published by Grown & Flown at the following link:

https://grownandflown.com/dad-loves-family/


Saturday, November 26, 2016

ARMY BRAT




Fort Bragg
 
THE UNITED STATES ARMY put the Captain in North Carolina. They sent his wife, an Army nurse, along with him. All I remember is what I've been told, and I'm told we didn't stick around long after they had me. After eighteen months in the Tar Heel state, the Captain, the Army nurse, and the rest of us, we got shipped overseas.
 

Kitzingen Army Airfield

THE TEACHER–stronger than she looked with her wispy white hair and sagging skin–she caught me from behind. Hooked me at the elbows. Trapped me in some kind of wrestler’s double chicken-wing. I strained for the door handle, brushed it with my fingertips, lost ground. I fought harder, a five-year-old's version of all-out, but the wicked witch jerked me back into the classroom.

Two dozen kids I didn't know sat frozen in their tiny desks, eyes wide like dolls, watching the new kid flail and shriek, tears and snot flying. All those kids watching me finally limp an arm free, spin, and unleash a high-top Chuck Taylor All-Star. Forty-eight focused eyeballs watching my black sneaker connect with the teacher’s hard shin. Watching the teacher’s turn to shriek, and I don’t remember much from those days, but the morning they expelled me from kindergarten, I do recall.

These days, naughty little boys remain in school. Disrupt education. Suck up all the attention. But fifty-some years ago on an overseas American army base, they weren’t issuing second chances. Not even for a little kid. You got what you earned, and when you got home, you got some more.

Maybe a year later in the same country, that's when I first went to jail. Somehow, I latched on to a pack of older kids, geniuses who decided to yank a farmer’s crops from his fertile ground. Decided it was smart to wind-up and launch crop missles–guided by heavy root clods–high in the air, arcing gracefully like mortar shells. Little Einstein, I went right along, launching junior mortars, adding whistling and explosions.

Good times, for everyone but the old farmer, who discovered the artillery battle in his field, and came running. I guess you had to call it running because it was the old man's best effort, but he looked like a cartoon jalopy rambling toward us on kitty-corner flat tires.

All the geniuses, we could have outrun the old man, except for his fleet-footed companion–a grim German Shepherd at the man's heel–more deputy than pet. The farmer barked something in German, spat one sharp word, and the beast corralled us POWs like sheep.

Our captors, the cartoon jalopy and the mouth full of fangs, they marched our little brainy platoon along the edge of the field, toward town. I lagged ten big-kid strides behind, bawling like a six-year-old. Stumbling along, earnestly trying to catch up, yet falling further and further back. Neither captor seemed to notice the bleating runt in the rear.

My big sister, Cat, she crept up on the scene, stalking, darting behind trees and bushes, matching my pace. She saw me trailing behind, caught-on that the farmer and the dog didn't care, and frantically waved me over. I shook my head in that dramatic, pouty way little kids do when a request is not negotiable. On a mission, I marched on, eyes forward, tears washing my cheeks. Cat tried again, hissing, “Come on, run over here, you idiot!” I shook my head again, harder, and the littlest idiot trailed the parade of geniuses all the way to the clink.

When the Army Captain came to claim me, I got some more of what I’d earned. The Captain was the kindest, gentlest man I ever knew, but he also understood discipline.

Looking back, of all the wondrous sights–tilting my head to match the angle of the Tower of Pisa, or gazing at the castings of dead kids in Pompeii–after four years in Europe, expulsion and jail and discipline are what I remember best. Some things, a kid doesn’t forget.

After Germany, the Captain made Major. He and the Army nurse got transferred again, so we all became Texans.

Fort Hood

IN TEXAS WE HAD A GRAINY BLACK AND WHITE TV with three channels and rabbit ears. Complete with tinfoil. I spent my days outside doing boy things–things boys used to do: fishing with a bamboo pole, hunting sparrows with my Daisy BB gun, fighting, playing ball, and generally running wild until the streetlights came on.  Sometimes, even later.

Naturally, my base friends and me, we played Army. We used gear handed down from our dads–helmets, canteens, olive green cartridge belts, and boots that didn't fit. We put together random pieces of oversized fatigues to create our own Mad Max-style uniforms. For sure, not regulation 670-1.

On weekends, we'd fill our canteens and pack sandwiches of Wonder Bread and peanut butter. Simple, sticky rations, but so delicious at the end of a long march.

We'd gear up and set out early for the water tower or Castle Mountain, whichever we picked. The gray-painted water tower was just a goal you had to conquer, several miles away. We'd conquer the tower, flop down in its shadow, and unpack our rations.

Castle Mountain looked like a flat-topped mesa, covered with sagebrush, cactus and horned toads, and abundant artifacts of war from Army maneuvers there. For nine-year-old-boys, brass shells, empty ammo boxes, and C-rations are priceless finds. Boy-Heaven.

Getting beat by a girl is something else I remember, but don't mention much. Cat and me, we went through that ugly phase of siblings tormenting each other. Of hating each other. Of constant bickering, and eventually the Major got fed up. He marched us outside, squared us off, and forced us to fight.

Eager to inflict damage, we clashed like mountain rams and wrestled each other to the ground. She was bigger and stronger, and maybe tougher. After a scramble, she locked body scissors across my lower ribs, and squeezed like hell. Squeezed as hard as she could for as long as she could, and I screamed loud enough to draw neighbors. Still, the Major let it play out. I'd hoped someone would step in to save me, but the spectators seemed to understand the deal, even if I didn't.
 
The torture went on and on. Cat squeezing, me bellowing and crying and blowing snot. Her getting tired and letting up. Both of us gasping, and recovering. Repeat-repeat-repeat, the suffering continued for half-an-hour, and I'm not sure exactly what the Major had in mind, but it taught me that I never wanted to be controlled like that again. I never lost another fight.

But I wasn't the toughest member of our family. One Christmas morning, us four kids gathered at the tree, poised to rip open presents. A tiny Toy Poodle puppy scampered into the room, bouncing from kid to kid, squirting willy-nilly in excitement. At the time, he weighed maybe four pounds, so naturally we named him Tiger.

I'm not making this next part up, the toughest member of the family part, Tiger's medical history. On the Army nurse's grave, I swear it's true. I hate to even write it down because it might make you question the rest of my story, but I owe it to history. I owe it to the dog.

Etched in my memory, in no particular order: I hit Tiger in the head with the tail-end of a full swing of a wooden baseball bat. Knocked him cold. A snake bit him above an eye and left a scar. A car ran over him, and I remember Tiger squealing and scrambling out from between two rolling tires. A cow kicked him and knocked out a tooth. A motorcycle hit him, leaving him bloodied. A horse trampled him and broke his leg. An eagle snatched him up and carried him to a nest full of . . . OK, the eagle is fiction, but at Tiger's rate, it could have happened next.

Years later, under her bed, the retired Army nurse found the best dog I ever had. Found Tiger. Dead, of natural causes.

California

MY SIMPLE CHILDHOOD ENDED when the Major retired as a Lieutenant-Colonel and moved us to California's Bay Area. The innocence of youth and the strong lessons of military life had passed. The plain journey of an Army Brat, the things you recall, they gave way to civilian memories. Junior high dances, and high school sports. Drinking, and socializing, and solving the opposite sex. College, and the explosion of technology. The onset of responsibility. Starting a family, and raising little civilians in a complicated world. Growing older. And, of course, another good dog or two.






Saturday, May 14, 2016

IT MAKES YOU FEEL



I stalled for a couple of months, waiting for a sign that maybe the time wasn't right.  A sign never came.  So, after 36 seasons–every single one blessed with special kids–it's clear to me that now, is right.

The right timing doesn't make it any easier to retire as a wrestling coach.  There is so much to leave behind.  The daily grind.  The competition.  The pursuit of dreams.  The kids. 

When I finally found the courage, I sent a letter home to wrestlers and their parents.  I told them I was done.  I explained a few things.  I thanked a lot of people.  I did my best to answer the questions, why now, and why us?

Why?  There are many good reasons.  Age.  Energy.  Health.  Family.  Different dreams.  A host of other reasons, none of which include a declining love for wrestling.  That's why it's so damn hard.  In the face of the many absolute reasons to quit, I love wrestling, and coaching wrestling, more than ever.  

So when I found the guts, I made a leap into the unknown, an abyss without wrestling for the first time in over 40 years.  I sent a letter bomb to deliver my message, which took all my strength to drop in the mail.  Cowardly?  Maybe so, I won't argue.  I was afraid of calling a meeting with kids I've been to battle with, kids I love, to tell them I would no longer be their coach.  I wasn't sure I could have managed it.  But, I also wanted the word out–directly from me–to parents and kids at the same time.  I didn't want rumors or questions to persist, or my verbal story filtered through 20 teenaged brains, and dispersed to everyone seeking answers.  So, I dropped my bomb in their boxes.

My letter reached mailboxes yesterday afternoon.  I know, because my wife Jeri is a rural mail carrier.  I texted her relentlessly.  Have you seen any letters?  Have you delivered any?  Who did you deliver to?  How do you think they will handle it?  Should I be worried?  She's busy and had reason to be annoyed, but she wasn't.  She patiently answered my questions.  She loves me, and knows I'm twisted up, inside.

I knew today at school–my first day seeing wrestlers without a coach–would hurt.  I didn't know how much.  I entered the locker room before classes, unsure of what to expect.  I found myself being stealthy and quick, head down, traveling directly from A to B.  One of my guys spotted me, and came to my PE office. 

"Coach, I heard a nasty rumor," he said.  He looked at me, then cast worried eyes downward, waiting for me to tell him it wasn't true, to make it all better.  I couldn't.  We hugged, said we loved each other, and he shuffled back to his locker.  I bolted from the locker room.  One, was enough for now.

I went to a classroom and began writing greeting cards to each kid I was leaving.  Therapy.  A last chance to tell them how I felt.  One last thing, something, to leave them with. 

Before 4th period I handed a card to a young state medalist, a little boy in a man's body.  The kid is a beast with a heart of gold, who benches and squats a million pounds.  The gold-hearted beast quietly took my card, and no words were exchanged.  Later, after 5th hour, he appeared in my office.  Again, he said nothing.  It looked like he wanted to speak, but couldn't find the words.  I told him I was still here, and would always be here for him.  Just not on the corner of his mat.  We fought tears, as men try to do, and hugged.

Later during my weight training class, another wrestler and I kept our distance, avoiding eye contact and proximity.  We both knew this was going to be tough.  Eventually he passed near me, and I asked, "How ya doin'?"  He flashed an awkward smile, a mask, then answered, "How you doin'?" I returned the same smile-mask, mine with quivering lips.  Then, he asked, "Written any letters lately?"  After a pause, I countered with, "Got any letters lately?"  He said, "No, but I heard about one." 

Our little word-dance quickly dissolved into a strong, tearful hug between a young warrior–a two-time state medalist–and his old coach, in the center of the weight room, while other students watched, and wondered.  He quietly whispered something that included the word "father," and we both sobbed harder.  Eventually we let go, tried to compose ourselves, and moved in opposite directions, disappearing through different doors of the weight room.

Later, I saw him in the locker room.  I told him something I've re-discovered many times, something that always feels fresh and new, and absolutely true: The greatest thing about wrestling, is that it makes you feel.  Sometimes it hurts beyond description, and other times it's amazingly good–even beautiful.  Real life, at it's finest.  The highs don't happen without the lows, and both occur because there has been work, and commitment, and pain, and love involved.

If the retirement of an old coach didn't hurt this bad, it would mean that everything along the way didn't really matter.  But it does hurt.  It matters.  In its own painful way, it's beautiful.

Wrestling always offers new discoveries.  Today, I found there is something I will miss far more than the competition, the winning, the practice, the grind.  I discovered a thing  I intuitively knew all along.  I will miss the kids most of all.









GOODBYE


May 10, 2016

Dear Wrestlers and Wrestling Folks,

I write this letter to share my thoughts and feelings with my current wrestlers and parents, and to express my appreciation and thanks to many people.  All things in life eventually come to an end, and no one coaches forever.  I’ve decided to resign as wrestling coach at Blaine High School.  I’ve been coaching for 36 years, and it’s time. 

This has been a tough decision, and two things are especially hard.  First, I’ve been a wrestler or coach for most of my life.  Wrestling is–and has always been–my identity.  I love the sport, and I’m not sure who I’ll be without it, but I look forward to finding out.  Second, I knew the day would come when I’d have to leave a group of wrestlers.  It was inevitable, but still, it hurts.  When you watch kids sacrifice, and suffer, and work like these boys do, you can’t help but love them for it, and saying goodbye to people you love is one of the hardest things in life.  They aren’t all state champions or medalists, but they are all special, and equally hard to leave.

Still, many wise old coaches have said, “There will always be wrestlers, so if that’s your criteria, how do you ever quit?”  In 36 years, I’ve coached many hundreds of kids.  Today, I leave an exceptional group of wrestlers and their families.  Behind them is another wave of kids, and after those, many more.  So yes, the old-timers are right.  There will always be kids, but at some point all coaches will leave their teams behind.  Now, it’s my turn.

In learning this news, some of you might be sad.  Others may be hurt, or even angry.  Some may even be thinking, “It’s about time!”  These are all natural reactions when someone has coached as long as I have.

If you’re sad that I’m leaving, it means you are loyal and appreciative of my efforts, and our relationship.  I appreciate you in the same ways–your kindness and loyalty mean the world to me.  Please remember the good times, let go of any sadness, and look to tackle new challenges.  In wrestling and in life, there are always new challenges.  One can’t afford to stand still for long, and as you move forward, I hope you’ll offer your support to a new coach.

If you are hurt or angry, I ask for your grace in understanding that my leaving is not about you, but rather, because it’s time to give my wife, my family, and myself that best part of me that has been reserved for wrestling through all these years.

If you welcome a change, I understand.  Coaches cannot be all things to all people.  But I hope you understand that I gave my wrestlers all that I had to give, for many years.  Now, I wish for them the best coach possible, one who carries on the solid tradition of Blaine Wrestling.  I will be rooting for the new coach, and for these boys.  I believe they are capable of competing for a state title, and it will be exciting to follow their progress.

To the many alumni, parents and fans that embraced me as your coach, thank you!  Your loyalty and support have lifted me throughout my career.  These positive relationships are important to me, and I hope that my resignation will not cause our friendships to fade.

To my long-time wingman, Coach Rasar, and to all of our other coaches over the years, we experienced a good share of success, and faced many struggles together.  We worked our way through it all, and had a blast in the process.  I will miss my time on the mats with you.

To my troupe of managers and stat girls, you are a small sorority of awesome people!  Many of you don’t know each other, but you are a band of sisters (and one brother) who enhanced our program, and my life.  When your faces flash in my memory, I can’t help but smile.  Thank you for all you gave to me, to our wrestlers, and to our program.  You were very important to Blaine Wrestling, and are still appreciated.

To the hundreds of opposing coaches and referees I count as friends, our relationships are one of the best byproducts of being involved in this wonderful sport.  While I’m sure we’ll see each other from time to time, I’m aware that not having a team to compete with changes the dynamic in our relationships, and that saddens me.  Things will never be the same, and change can be bittersweet.  

To our administration in the Blaine School District–the School Board, Ron Spanjer, Scott Ellis (and former Principal Dan Newell), Wayne Vezzetti and Steve Miller (and former ADs Gary Clausen and Tom Luehmann)–you have treated me, our program, and our kids with unprecedented support.  This level of respect for wrestling by our administration is not apparent in many districts, and I appreciate working for each of you.  You are simply the best.

To our teachers and staff in the BSD, and to our community and businesses, you’ve taken a measure of pride in Blaine Wrestling, embraced our program, and supported us through your sacrifices, efforts, donations, and more.  In return, we appreciate and respect you all.  Thank you.

Finally, to the wrestlers who competed on my teams–in Blaine, Los Alamitos (CA), Shawnee (OK), McLoud (OK), EWU (WA), and Delhi Tech (NY)–we share a bond that is one of the most special aspects of my life.  Of the relationships I’ve had outside of family, my relationship with you is cherished above all.  We faced some moments together, enjoying amazing highs, and suffering devastating lows.  I’ve learned that experiencing one, makes the other that much more profound, and the intensity of feelings evoked by wrestling is unlike anything else.  But as I reflect, I realize that what happened on the mat is only a small part of things.  The van rides and hotel stays, the classroom interactions, the hard work, the joy and the suffering together, the life emergencies, and graduations.  Then, the weddings, and babies, and second generation wrestlers.  Like life, this list goes on and on, but it’s wrestling that binds us together.  While I have naturally been closer to some of you than others through the years, I love you all for what we shared.  Thank you for your hard work and your commitment.  Thank you for your loyalty.  Thank you for your friendship.

Sincerely,
Craig Foster





           

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A TALE OF TWO • Tony Ramos & Victoria Anthony


It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.  Aristotle Onassis
•••••
FIVE IN THE MORNING, and I cruise on a treadmill at the gym.  I wear ear buds, and listen to a YouTube video of my favorite spiritual guru, Gabby Bernstein.  I’m no spirit junkie, as Gabby calls herself.  I’m just a wrestling coach with an open mind, and I like to double-down on good vibes in the morning.  This morning, it’s exercise and positive messages.  Gabby tells me to “be the light” today.  I resolve to try. 
            I glance at a TV screen 20 feet away, where images capture my attention.  A beautiful woman in a white toga lights the Olympic Flame in Greece, and after its journey across that ancient country, the Flame will snake through Brazil on a 95-day tour, culminating in Rio at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. 
            The Flame news story invokes memories of ten days ago–the United States Olympic Trials in freestyle wrestling, and the plights of two athletes I’ve admired from a distance for many years.  I recognize that if they were in my place on the treadmill, and caught this news report, it would crush them all over again.  That’s the trouble with deep scars.  There are always reminders, so it’s death by a thousand cuts.  I'm human, and feel heartache for both, so I wonder how I could possibly “be the light" for them, or at least try to find the good, hidden in most bad situations.  I open up to the idea, take a few deep breaths, and an idea surfaces.  Maybe I can find a light in their circumstances, through writing.
            Like a wrestler battling doubts, a writer sometimes faces the inadequacy of his
tools–words, in trying to paint a picture of happenings so powerful that they can never be truly understood, except by those living them.  After watching the 2016 Trials, I find myself in that position, wondering if my words might offer anything.  Still, in facing difficult challenges, I’ve learned to simply do my best, and have faith that my work will lead to someplace bright.  I decide to try.
            I know neither of these athletes personally, other than some pleasant Facebook messaging with one.  But then, who really knows a person?  In truth, we are all outsiders, and can only speculate on the depths of what others celebrate, or suffer.
•••••
Determination becomes obsession, and then it becomes all that matters.  Jeremy Irvine
•••••
            Two extraordinary athletes, a young man and a young woman, stalk the same dream.  She has traded most of her young life for the rarest of opportunities, and he has done the same.  The dream they chase is more than a goal.  Goals are important and powerful, but are often usual, everyday things.  Losing ten pounds is a goal.  Or, earning an A on a test.  Winning an Olympic Gold Medal in wrestling is an unusual, once in a lifetime achievement for an infinitesimal few.  In the hierarchy of goal setting, or even obsession, this quest sits many rungs higher, miles beyond ordinary.  It wouldn’t be too dramatic to say that this pursuit is akin to life and death.  When a person literally trades his life for something, faithfully and unconditionally, and suddenly loses that thing, it must feel like a living death, a death of the soul–spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically.  For elite athletes who are accustomed to winning, and cannot conceive of losing, the initial shock is stunning.  The aftermath, when thoughts race and reality sets in, causes the pain to remain fresh and flowing for days, years, and perhaps, a lifetime.  Even the consolation prize of being the first alternate for the United States Olympic Team is no comfort, and in many ways, adds to the pain.  Pick your cliché:  So near, yet so far.  All, or none.  Second place, is last place.
•••••
Sunday, April 10, 2016 • U.S. Olympic Team Trials • Carver-Hawkeye Arena
•••••
            Victoria Anthony and Tony Ramos dream of being Olympic Champions.  They are beautiful athletes with distinctly different public personas and wrestling styles.  Victoria is friendly and outgoing, with an explosiveness on the mat rarely seen in women’s wrestling.  Tony sports a perpetual game face, is openly intimidating, and usually bullies opponents, in prototypical Iowa style.
            Victoria is a four-time WCWA Women’s National Champion, a former World Team member, a Junior World Champion, and was 3rd in the 2012 Olympic Trials.
            Tony is an NCAA Champion and three-time All-American for the Iowa Hawkeyes, is a current World Team member, and has been the dominant American at his weight for two years.  He is the top seed.
            Both athletes ride their preparation, personalities, and styles into the Sunday evening championship finals of their divisions at the Trials.  They take the mat, with their lives on the line.
•••••
A Match
•••••
            It’s just a match, like a thousand before it.  Six minutes of time.  But it’s a match that, if permitted, defines the life previous, and the lifetime remaining.  It seems so out of balance.  Years of excessive pursuit of a dream funnel down to one six-minute window, or even one precise moment–a speck on that window.  An imperceptible mistake.  A microscopic lapse in focus.  An uncharacteristic surrender of perfect body position, and poof, it’s over.  With everything on the line, Victoria and Tony lose.  Neither will represent America, in Rio. 
            They are just two of many who suffer losses of this magnitude on this day.  As such, they are each just another wrestling news story, because in every match, someone wins, and someone loses.  But there is an allure in these massive losses, like the captivation of a passerby, unapologetically gawking at a horrific car wreck.  Did anybody die?   
            The aftermath of defeat is what distinguishes one loss from another, one person from the next.  How does one respond in the moments and hours following a shattered dream?  Most of us will never find out, because we have neither the talent or will to chase something with virtually impossible odds.  In their own ways, Tony and Victoria–bursting with talent and will–allow us inside their pain.
 •••••
So great was the extremity of his pain and anguish,
 that he did not only sigh, but roar.  Matthew Henry
•••••
            "I was stabbed in the back."  Tony Ramos speaks deliberately in a post-apocalypse press conference.  The familiar game face threatens to melt at any moment.  Some say the interview is brutally timed, occurring while he is still reeling from the stunning finality of the loss.  His heart is broken.  His thoughts race.  Emotions work on him, but he tightens his lips and muscles through it.  He’s an old-school Hawkeye, perhaps the last of a legendary breed. 
            After the obligatory acceptance of responsibility, "First, the loss is on me," Tony's subsequent comments reveal his true anguish.  He lashes out at his coach, Olympic Gold Medalist Tom Brands, for promising to be in his corner, but who instead sits between the two Hawkeyes (Ramos battles former Hawkeye Daniel Dennis in the finals), and coaches neither.  Ramos also challenges the loyalty of another coach, Ryan Morningstar, after spotting Morningstar and Dennis eating dinner together.  In calling out others and seemingly deflecting responsibility, he shows a soft underbelly, perhaps for the first time in his career.  It belies the bulletproof, take-no-prisoners armor of stare-downs and machismo for which he is famous.  To those of us watching from afar, we finally see that Tony Ramos has feelings, and bleeds like the rest of us.  He is human, after all.
            Ramos and Tom Brands each take incoming shots following the press conference, but it runs much deeper than an athlete airing dirty laundry that is best contained inside the walls of the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex.  Brands may or may not have told Ramos he would corner him, or he may not have communicated well, or he may have just gotten stuck.  As a wrestling coach for many years, I’ve experienced similar moments–loyal to two opposing forces, loving both sides in some cases, getting caught in the middle, and bungling things.  It happens.  Admittedly, it’s unprecedented in a situation as dramatic as the one traversed by Ramos and Dennis.  But rather than judging Brands, it might be decent to attempt to understand him in the context of this complicated situation.  He coached Ramos for five years as a Hawkeye, and several more years in freestyle wrestling.  Brands and Dennis have a similar history.  For years, Brands has given both wrestlers everything he has.  Then, at the decisive moment, he sits in the corner of neither, effectively showing loyalty to both. 
            After Tony has his say, Brands counters in his own presser with, “When you're in a guy's corner, you’re in his corner for life.  I've been in that guy's (Tony’s) corner since the day he walked on campus.”  He believes the bigger picture matters.
•••••
To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and discover that the prisoner was you.  Lewis B. Smedes
•••••
            Tom Brands has always seemed the very embodiment of loyalty.  Here, he finds himself entangled in an impossible situation involving true-blue Hawkeyes, and despite criticisms of his actions, he’s earned the benefit of the doubt.  Tom bleeds, and he is human, too.  He deserves forgiveness.
            Tony Ramos has also earned a pass.  He suffers a devastating loss to a former Hawkeye in his home arena, a place where he has never lost over the long course of his career.  Beyond the crushing disappointment, he may feel he has lost face.  His wrestling persona is that of a bully, and when a bully is challenged and defeated by a beloved underdog, the bully is left empty, while the underdog is adored.  If Goliath had lived, his image and legacy would have been forever altered, while David ascended to a throne. 
            Further, at the highest levels, where technique and bodies and tactics are ultra
fine-tuned, wrestling morphs into a mental game.  The absence of his coach in the corner may be the chink in Tony’s mental armor that Dennis exploits.  In an athlete’s terms, it got in his head.  In razor-thin competition at the highest level, anything negative in the head can be disastrous. 
            Perhaps most significantly, Tony may feel deserted by family–the fiercely loyal Hawkeye family–perceived by him now, as less than faithful.  Rightly or wrongly, he may take the love showered on Dennis as a personal affront, because Tony is a Hawkeye too, one who represented as well as any before him.  Still worse, he feels abandoned by his mentor, a man he surely loves, at the most pivotal moment in his career, if not his life.
            This combustible mix of intense personalities and high stakes, this perfect storm, led to Tony’s angry press conference.  In context, it is not a bad thing.  On the contrary, it seems perfectly natural under the conditions.  He too, deserves forgiveness
•••••
We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts
are conscious of our treasures.  Thornton Wilder
•••••
            Victoria Anthony suffers in a different way.  Within hours of the most crushing defeat of her career, still stunned, she is suddenly overcome with gratitude.  She takes to Facebook, and posts the following message:

 I just want to say thank you to everyone who has given me so much of their love and support.  To my parents, sisters, family, coaches, sponsors, friends, boyfriend, fans.  Earlier today I was brought to tears at the realization of all I have to be grateful for via the sport of wrestling – it has brought me my best friends in the world, who have become family to me.  Allowed me to travel the world and experience countless cultures.  Meet my boyfriend and continue our relationship.  Been a vessel for my family and friends to show me just how deep their love is for me – they would all do anything to help me realize my dreams.  And they have all made it clear that their love is unconditional.  This night makes no sense at all to me and is going to take time to recover from and to understand, but I can be thankful that all of the above remain true.  Thank you everyone. 
 
 Victoria signs off with a tiny pink heart.  Her gratitude in the face of acute suffering shows us that in her own journey, she embodies Cael Sanderson's philosophy.  When listening to any interview with the Penn State coach or his wrestlers, invariably they credit gratitude as the single most important factor in their success.
•••••
The best way to pay for a lovely moment, is to enjoy it.  Richard Bach
•••••
            At the Trials, gratitude enables Penn State alum, Frank Molinaro, to relax and find joy in battling through one of the most brutal brackets of all time.  Coming from the ninth seed, the former Nittany Lion claws his way to a stunning first place finish.  What separates him from all of the other NCAA champions and World Team members in his weight class?  His weapon is gratitude.  In interviews, he says that competing with gratitude eliminates pressure, and in what should be the most pressure-packed event of his life, he relaxes and finds joy in the fight.  He somehow travels back in time to become that happy-hearted, giggling little boy with a twinkle in his eye, scrambling across a mat.  For Frank, the formula is clear:  Gratitude = Joy = Success.  Five NCAA team titles in six seasons for Penn State, is all the proof necessary.
            While gratitude guides Frank Molinaro to his place on the Olympic Team, it empowers Victoria Anthony to claw out of her living-coffin.  Gratitude is her healing light, and she refuses to dwell in dark places.  A few days following the Trials she is back on her feet, taking action.  She posts photos of her freshly scrawled, year-long training calendar that peaks at the 2017 World Championships, a year after the current Olympics.  For Victoria, the formula is also clear:  Pain + Gratitude = Motivation.
•••••
At times our own light goes out, and is rekindled by a spark
from another person.  Albert Schweitzer
•••••
                  I understand Gabby Bernstein's "be the light" message to mean, take initiative to bring the light into a dark situation, to somehow infuse positive into a negative circumstance.  I am nobody to Tony Ramos and Victoria Anthony, so I don’t presume that I can affect either in a meaningful way.  But as a fan of each, and a wrestling purist who wants our stars to feel whole and our dynasties to remain intact, maybe I can find a light to shine on a deeper meaning, to uncover a universal lesson or two, or to make some difference in how each is perceived going forward.
            For Tony, the light may be found in the lesson of forgiveness, a healing force, and one of the most uplifting gifts a person may give or receive.  Here, there are many opportunities for Tony, who could forgive himself for what he may view as his own failure while competing, or could forgive himself for any regrets about his press conference.  He could offer an olive branch to Tom Brands and Ryan Morningstar, for what he considers disloyalty.  He could forgive the entire Hawkeye Nation, if it feels right.
            The opportunity to forgive is also available in the other direction–Brands and Morningstar forgiving Ramos for his public rant.  
            Here, I'm aware that my naivety may be showing.  These are clearly stubborn people, a trait and asset on full display when they compete.  A tangle of ego and pride further complicates matters.  Still, if they can find forgiveness in their hearts, these once committed relationships emerge stronger than ever.  But someone will have to step up and go first, for healing to begin.  Maybe it's already happened behind the scenes.  I hope so.  If not, pain and anger will persist as a stubborn wound, and fester.
            For Victoria, the light is present in what she intuitively already knows.  Gratitude is an absolute healer, a catalyst for joy, and great performance.  Her message of gratitude, and her massive strength in picking herself up off the mat and moving forward at the darkest moment, is a lesson for all people. 
            In the throes of epic disappointment, no one cares for lectures about life lessons via adversity.  However, it seems clear that Victoria has learned one, or called on one already in her character:  While pursuing something bright and shiny–something she wants in the worst possible way–she already owns a thing more beautiful, a tremendous extended-family of people who support her and love her unconditionally, no matter what happens on any mat.  It is from that sturdy foundation that goodness thrives, and gold medals are won.     
            This is a tale of two–two human beings, two medals, and two lights. 
            Two people react to extreme disappointment in different ways.  It might be tempting to judge Tony harshly, especially when compared to Victoria’s outpouring of gratitude.  But it’s clear that in a moment of deepest disappointment, he speaks from the heart and expresses his truth, without pulling punches.  It’s admirable, and perhaps even worthy of respect.  It mirrors his honest, straightforward approach to a match.  Confident, forward, hard.  Put it out there, and leave it.  Victoria's handling of the situation needs little analysis.  Her own words are enough, beautiful and enlightening.  
            Two silver medals represent crushing setbacks with the power to cripple each athlete, or spring them forward.  Which, depends on how they ultimately respond. 
            Finally, two gentle lights–forgiveness and gratitude–guiding us out of dark places.    













  


Sunday, April 17, 2016

ROOM




It's springtime, early evening, and days are getting longer.  Waning sunlight filters through banks of windows on either end of my room, highlighting the slick surface of the mats.  I call this place my room, because I'm the only head wrestling coach it's ever known. 

When they built my room, I didn't like the windows.  I thought they would be a distraction for my guys: on one end, students passing by, stopping to stare; the training room beckoning from just across the foyer, a magnet for guys who would rather be "hurt," than work; parent noses pressed to the glass, enjoying the action–or judging their kid, other people's kids, and coaches.  On the other end, a concession stand, where basketball spectators slip away from the popcorn line to sneak a peek, and wonder at the brutality of that other winter sport.  Mostly, I worried that the windows would remind my guys of the world outside, a world that is relatively sane, a place where people live in comfortable temperatures, work to humane limits, eat what they want, and avoid pain.  A world calling for them, when there is work to do.

For a while I blocked the windows with poster board.  Sunlight still eased past the edges, helping dissipate the dungeon effect, but not entirely.  Then, one day I changed.  I realized I love the sunshine–especially early morning and early evening, washing over my mats, cleansing them.  I removed the poster board.  Seasons with sun came and left, and I grew to appreciate the onlookers beyond the glass, peering in at something they will never understand, with respect.

I've either wrestled or coached for the past 45 years.  I've been in hundreds of rooms.  My wrestling journey has taken me to a handful that I called home.  My first, at Los Alamitos High School in California, was a multi-purpose room, shared with everyone.  We had a stiff, wrinkled, one-section mat that we unrolled and rolled up (folded, is more precise) daily.  There were no wall mats, and one corner of the room had what passed for a weight room back then, a multi-station Universal Gym.  I learned very early that a nice room has very little to do with how good a wrestler decides to become.

I graduated and moved to the room at Cypress College in Orange County.  Again we shared, this time with gymnastics and PE classes, but we had an organized coach from Pennsylvania, Ray Haas, who taught us solid wrestling.  I watched Ray diligently clean the mats every day, using a push broom and towel soaked in solution.  I remember thinking, "Wow, this whole thing is important to him."

After Cypress, I transferred to UNLV, for the inaugural Runnin' Rebel wrestling season.  The room was small, but our own, fully wall-matted and ready to go.  NCAA Champion Bill Murdock from Washington was our assistant coach.  Bill was at my weight, so we wrestled daily, and he usually won every position.  I rarely scored, but one day I managed to ride him for over a minute.  He grinned, grabbed a pencil, and wrote on a piece of wood trim above a wall mat: Today, Craig Foster rode Bill Murdock for one minute.  Many years later, long after the program had been dropped, I made a pilgrimage back to the room while on a family trip to Vegas.  The room had become an aerobics studio, but there, on the wood trim, I could still make out Bill's writing.  He died in a motor vehicle accident not long after coaching us.

Las Vegas wasn't a good fit for a young hooligan, so I found my way to Eastern Washington University, first as a wrestler, and later, as the coach.  The room was red–red mats, red wall mats, and red names of All-Americans on the wall.  It was my first room that felt like a real wrestling facility–two mats, fully padded walls, cleaned by the athletic department staff.  I arrived in spring, and that summer before my senior year, I scrounged for training partners.  One day my coach–former National Team member Stan Opp–told me, "There's a guy here from out of town for a few weeks.  He wants to train with someone."  The guy was NCAA All-American Dave Allen, from Iowa State.  We wrestled, lifted, hit the town in the evenings, and became friends.  I was taking a summer sports history class, and Dave agreed to help me re-enact a legendary Olympic match involving Milon of Croton.  We rehearsed in the room, and one day, in front of a class of college kids, we transformed into ancient Greek wrestlers wearing togas (naked and covered in olive oil would have been a little too historically accurate), and threw each other in the dirt outside the athletic facility.  Eventually summer ended, Dave returned to Iowa, and that winter I got my red name on the wall.

I found my first teaching job in Oklahoma, where I became the assistant coach at Shawnee High School.  I worked under head coach Mark Leen, who would go on to win National High School Coach of the Year, and father future NCAA Champion Jordan Leen.  I remained there for just a year, but I clearly remember one practice when Mark and I divided the kids into two teams, and ran a mock dual between the "USA" and "RUSSIA."  Colorful, future state champion Shawn Davis, competing for team "USA," pinned his opponent, sprung to his feet and shouted, "Take THAT, Hitla!"  Mark and I collapsed onto the mats of that tiny room, laughing and cracking jokes about a Shawnee education.

The next year, I became the head wrestling coach in the neighboring town of McLoud, Oklahoma.  I was hired by wrestling-fanatic Athletic Director Warren Boles, who was old school before old school was cool.  We didn't have our own room, so one day in the fall, Warren said, "How about you use the two old classrooms above the elementary gym?"  He gave me an open account at the local hardware store, and I went to work–with no building experience, no permits, no inspections, no help, and few tools.  I learned to use a masonry blade by cutting out a cinderblock wall between the two classrooms, with no concept of load bearing or safety.  I needed a hole, so I made one.  I drove to Oklahoma City and purchased dense foam, vinyl and a staple gun, and fashioned homemade wall mats for the entire perimeter.  To an outsider, the finished product must have been hideous, but to me, my team and Warren, it was beautiful.

After a year at McLoud, I returned to my room at Eastern Washington, and trained for the Olympic Trials.  In hindsight, I had no chance at the Trials, but I trained as if I did, flew to Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa, and competed.  Dan Severn ended my dream.

I spent several seasons coaching in the Eastern room, but eventually left for upstate New York, where I took a dream job as head wrestling coach and fitness center director at S.U.N.Y Delhi.  I had an office upstairs, and just downstairs was the fitness center, and adjacent wrestling room.  I told the AD, Gary Cole, that I was an experienced wall mat technician, and he allowed me to reproduce my efforts from McLoud.  I worked alone through Thanksgiving break in the deserted Delhi Tech athletic complex, 3000 miles from my Washington home.  I finished the mats, and coached two seasons in that room, before returning home to marry my girlfriend, and become the head coach at Blaine High School.
  
I spent my first 11 years in Blaine's old room, with its cinderblock walls, orange, hand-painted state placer names, and decades of tradition.  For the past 14, I've been in my room, where ultra-high ceilings create echoes when I teach skills, or yell at someone for lying on his stomach–and not fighting.  Pull-up bars, ropes, and a row of single words line the walls:  RESPECT.  LOVE.  COMMIT . . .

Sometimes I come to my room in the mornings, before school starts.  I leave the lights off, but early natural sunlight seeps in.  It's dark enough to feel hidden, but light enough to see.  It's quiet.  I move about, picking up a forgotten headgear, cleaning a table with a Clorox wipe, collecting towels and mop heads to wash.  I invent things to do, because I love being here.  It's peaceful.

At some point I drop to my knees on the soft mat, close my eyes, and just breathe.  For an instant, I wonder what passing students think, but I don't really care.  I'm in the most comfortable place on earth.

A furnace kicks on, and air rumbles through exposed ceiling ducts.  I open my eyes, and emerge from a trance.  I peak up at the boards featuring the names of our state placers.  The medals and the years are listed, but I could care less.  I see only names of kids I love.  College graduates and laborers.  Airmen and Marines, Sailors and Soldiers.  Carpenters and prisoners, teachers, pilots, and addicts.  Entrepreneurs and homeless, and some no longer with us.  Kids from the right side, and the wrong side of the tracks.  Hundreds of others never made the wall, but submitted to this room's demands and called it home, just the same.  Here, cut off from mommy and daddy, electronic devices, and the world, they all suffered and became men.  They were equals here, and no matter their position today, they still are.

Absently, I daydream across the vacant mats in the almost-dark, and I can see a takedown in progress.  I hear grunts and other quiet sounds of brutal work.  Across the room, a phantom wrestler climbs a rope, hand over hand over hand.  Nearby, an elbow dislocates.  I watch sprints, and see a boy slip in a pool of sweat, sprain his knee, and finish the work.  I see push-ups and sprawls, and blood, everywhere.  I watch a fistfight between best friends, and later, a hug.  I hold a senior, brought to tears following his very last practice, after 10 years in my room.

My room, and every wrestling room, holds a thousand stories of work, and sacrifice, and love.  Only those who have lived in these rooms will understand.  

I have to say, I love my room.  I will continue to come here alone, whenever I have the chance.  It is home.