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.