Headlock

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Chapter 14: Weight Class Conundrum

The USA Wrestling website advertised that registration for the Nationals would open on January 1st, 2017. I had bookmarked the site and watched it daily waiting for the greyed-out registration button to turn red.

First the site indicated that registration would open on January 1st. Then the tournament organizers delayed it until January 11th. A second delay pushed it out to January 14th. A message urged competitors to register quickly before they filled all their available slots and that only the first 1,500 registrants would be allowed to compete in the Masters division.

January 14th came and went and the registration site still did not activate. I sent e-mails and called the office, but they did not get back to me right away. I worried about getting wrapped up in my work, or in family activities and losing track of checking the web site every day. I would have kicked myself if I had come all this way only to miss the registration window. While that risk seemed low, I also wanted to make my flight and hotel arrangements and couldn’t do so until I successfully completed the registration. The longer it took, the more expensive the flight and the less choice of arrival times I would have.

Finally, the button turned red and registration opened. I clicked it. I entered my credit card information and my USA Wrestling ID number. I received my confirmation by e-mail and then promptly handled my flight and hotel accommodations. After 12 months of hard work, the whole Headlock commitment had just turned vividly real. I was truly going to do this. I had a confirmation number, a travel itinerary, a hotel reservation code and a rental car waiting for me at the airport in Iowa. Twenty-six years after competing in the NCAAs in college, I was going to compete in the National Championship again, this time as a 48-year-old Master.

And this time, unlike my experience in college, I was not going to struggle to make weight. I was not going to think of the Nationals as an afterthought as I had in college where I was so obsessed with winning the New England Championship the week before, I had no emotional connection to the NCAAs.

I remember ballooning from 126 pounds at the New England tournament in college to 145 in less than three days. By the end of the weekend, I had gained almost 20 pounds. The extra heft probably helped me overpower my opponent in the finals. But it made the next week of preparing for the NCAAs hell.

Unfortunately, the strain of cutting those 20 pounds in four days robbed me of the appropriate mental preparedness I needed to compete at my best. I lost my first match to the guy who came in 8th place by the dreadful score of 14-1 in a wretched performance where I basically failed to compete at any level close to my ability.

I pulled myself together and wrestled well in my second match, but dropped a close one 10-6 to the guy who ultimately came in 5th place.

Dejected from losing, with the realization that I had just wrestled in my last college wrestling match ever, I shuffled off the mat to find a quiet place to reflect. That was when they tapped me on the shoulder and told me they had picked me – the skinniest kid in the tournament – for a random drug test.

I couldn’t get a sip of water. I couldn’t change out of my sweaty clothes. I just had to walk straight to the bathroom and pee in a cup in front of an NCAA enforcement monitor.

In any case, my college career ended that day in defeat. The week prior, I had won the New England Championship with my hand raised to a chorus of cheers from my teammates, classmates, friends, family and a field house full of people I didn’t even know. But at the NCAAs, having entered a few pounds over and forced to run wind sprints in a boiler room to make weight, I lost two straight in a lackluster performance, peed in a cup and then just wandered around in my street clothes for the next day as my teammates all wrestled in the championship rounds to earn the All-American status that I failed to acquire.

Twenty-six years later, as I found myself training for the Masters version of the National Championship, I often thought back to my college experience. Had I managed my weight more responsibly and not allowed it to cause such a distraction, would I have wrestled better? Would I have brought more focus and confidence with me into those matches? Could I have performed better? Was I good enough to have earned All-American honors?

I absolutely believe so.

And that’s why I worked so hard to stabilize my weight over the long haul and take the whole “cutting weight” dynamic out of my competitive equation. As of March 1st, with exactly a month to go, I stabilized my weight between 136.6 and 138.6. I could eat my dry cereal for breakfast, manage a small, but solid lunch and eat well at dinner and remain in the target zone. The weight class of 138.75 would be a cinch if I didn’t completely fall off a wagon and drastically change my patterns. I had my routine. I had a mere four weeks to go. I ran. I did my push-ups and sit-ups. I lifted. I had put it all together and was ready to go. Nothing could stop me.

I Googled past results of the USA Wrestling National Championships to gain a sneak peek at what the competition might resemble this year. In 2013, there had been five competitors at 138.75 pounds. I Googled each one. Most of them had wrestled at strong Division I schools in and around Iowa such as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, Purdue and UNI. Many of them coached at colleges or high schools and ran local wrestling clubs in their towns. I watched YouTube videos of the championship matches and instantly recognized that these competitors were all legitimate, strong, fast and talented. I could go there and compete, or I could get my doors blown off.

Despite seeing how strong the competition looked, I still had no idea what to expect of myself. On the one hand, I had barely wrestled in a quarter century. On the other hand, I was in the best shape of my life since my early 20s and I had competed reasonably well in a variety of competitive environments. I didn’t let the YouTube videos sway my confidence one way or the other. But, I recognized the bottom line that the caliber of competitor would be high at the tournament.

In 2015, there were only two wrestlers in the weight class and they wrestled each other in a best of three series. I reviewed the page that detailed the 2016 results and was dismayed to see that there were no entrants in the 138.75-pound weight class that year.

Around March 1st, the USA Wrestling website displayed a page with all the age divisions and weight classes arranged in a table. You could log in, look up your weight class and see how many other competitors you would face in the tournament. I scrolled over to my age group and weight class and was instantly distressed to see that there were no entrants in the 138.75 class this year. In fact, I was the only registrant in the entire age group.

I couldn’t believe that I ran the risk of spending all year training for a tournament that would not attract any participants. I bookmarked the page and revisited the site every day to check. Registrations added up for the younger age brackets, but not in the Masters division.

I tried to put it out of my mind and stay on track in my regimen. At times, I allowed myself to lament “what’s the point?”. I imagined everyone asking me how I did at the tournament and having to respond that I trained for a year, ran 600 miles, did 10,000 push-ups and starved myself to pick up a forfeit and a paper championship. I could picture my wife looking at me like I had wasted my time and money.

Part of me knew why the tournament had a low turnout. Folkstyle wrestling is less popular among college graduates as the focus turns to Freestyle, which is the style used in the Olympics. It seems that in past years, the turn-out were higher, but had trailed off more recently. I e-mailed the tournament director asking if he thought more people would sign-up and if I should cancel my flight arrangements while I still could. He didn’t reply.

I kept the turnout issue to myself and proceeded full speed. I’d fly there no matter what and take the forfeit if I had to. A big part of my objective was to go through the journey and the preparation to compete. The resulting physical transformation would be the reward, regardless of any results I generated on the mat. The nature of the competition was not supposed to matter as much to me. I had set out to prove to myself that I could do everything right and get to Iowa ready to take on whomever showed up. But, now that I had exceeded all those goals, I wanted to compete. I wanted to win. I just hoped someone would show up.

My wife, who had grown more supportive and almost excited for me over the months since her back started to feel better suggested that I ask my Dad to come with me to the tournament. I could see her thinking that she would not want to travel alone if she were in my shoes and assumed I would be lonely flying out there myself.

A big part of me wanted to invite him. Another part of me wanted to ride out there totally on my own, lost in my own thoughts and processes. I wasn’t sure I wanted to have to interact with another person, even my Dad, who I adore more than almost anyone else in the world.

Plus, and I hated to think this, but he had grown older. He wouldn’t move through the airport as quickly as me. He had his routines in the morning. I wondered if it would be distracting to have a companion. I wondered if he would have the stamina to sit in the bleachers all day waiting for my matches. As a 50-year-old Dad, he handled it all like a trouper. Pushing 80, I worried about him.

I thought back to my high school and college years. My Dad had always been my number one fan. He showed up at every match with his video camera and diligently filmed every minute including the ensuing hugs from my coaches, high fives with my teammates and celebrations with my classmates. I have all those tapes in a box. I converted some of them to digital DVDs and still watch them every few years with great nostalgia and pride.

I only learned to appreciate his efforts once I became a father myself and started filming my own boys with my digital video camera at their sports events. I have since realized the sacrifice he made as you can’t watch the game or competition and enjoy it when you are chained to the camera and have to focus on framing the shot and following the action. My poor Dad spent all those years with his eye crammed into the viewer of his camera and his neck torqued so that I could have these amazing memories on tape.

I also thought about all those car rides back from matches and tournaments where he would recap his impressions of what I had done well and repeatedly congratulate me on my accomplishments. How could I even consider not inviting him to join me in Iowa? As an adult, with my own family, I struggled to set aside time to spend with him. When I did see him, it was typically at a family party or gathering with dozens of other people. And here I had this golden opportunity to spend a weekend with him in a one-on-one setting and I balked?

I decided I wanted to share the experience with him. But, I continued to hesitate. I felt almost embarrassed that nobody had signed up for the tournament and even wondered if they would cancel it.

The director assured me in an e-mail several days after I reached out to him, that others would register. But as of three weeks out, I was still the only one at any weight class in my age division.

A 152-pounder popped up in the Masters Class A division, which consisted of 25 to 32-year-olds. I considered asking if I could compete in that class if I had to. It would be quite a challenge to wrestle Division I recent graduates in a weight class 15 pounds heavier than my current frame while giving up 20 years of youth. But, I had overcome so many other challenges, I just took this one in stride and adjusted my expectations to adapt to the situation.

I continued to check the site daily. I made a note to call my Dad, but kept hesitating, hoping another 138-pounder would show up in the 45 to 52-year-old division. I had hoped to compete against more than one other. But if it came down to a best of three wrestle off with one wrestler in my weight class, I’d take that. At least I’d earn the medal or trophy or whatever you get for winning as opposed to accepting an honor simply for showing up.

Then with about two and a half weeks to go, a new registrant appeared next to the 127.75-pound weight class. I was still the only 138-pounder. But there was now someone signed up for the next weight class below me. I stared at the number “1” next to the row for the 127-pound class. I wondered if the 127-pounder would consider wrestling up at 138, just as I had contemplated going up to the 152-pound class in the A Division.

And then, the simple answer hit me. I had to wrestle at 127. That would guarantee that I’d have at least one competitor to face. If I was going to win the National Championship, I wanted to do it on the mat. I wanted to beat someone for the honor and not just earn it for showing up.

In thinking it through more deeply, the reality hit me. I had already lost 65 pounds. My frame had almost no fat left. My third round of pants, mostly 31-waist, were falling off. I spent most of my days with a completely empty stomach. I could hear gurgling and rumbling on a regular basis.

I thought making 138 would mark the end of my weight loss journey. But I was wrong. I stared at the website and the roster of registered competitors and made the decision. I locked it into my head, making another Headlock pact with myself. Part of me feared what would come next. Part of me found the synergy of returning to my college weight class of 126 pounds as a poetic bookend to my wrestling career. The biggest part of me just shrugged off any concerns and moved forward as I typically do when faced with a nearly insurmountable challenge. Once the goal locked into my mind, I would not be able to back off it.

I had to lose ten more pounds to get to 127 and I had two and half weeks to do it.

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