Chapter 17: The National Championship
I had one guy to beat. The weight class consisted of me and one other competitor. He hailed from Minnesota and had placed fourth in the much bigger Freestyle National Championship tournament the previous year.
I watched him warm up and he didn’t look any better than me. I tuned him out and focused on preparing myself mentally and physically. I ran around the stadium. I dropped for 20 push-ups. I bounced up and down. I stretched my legs, groin, arms and neck. I worked a sweat and felt my blood flow. I recalled my wrestling career and replayed the highlights in my head. I reminded myself of all my best moves and visualized them as I jogged in place.
There were 12 bouts scheduled ahead of mine and I stood by the side of the mat watching these former Division I standouts battle each other. Some of the wrestlers impressed me. Some blew me away. Some looked beatable. I couldn’t wait to hit the mat.
I looked at my dad in the expansive bleachers along the 10-yard line of the football field with his iPad ready to record my match. I thought fondly of his unwavering devotion throughout high school and college where he faithfully video-taped all my matches. Here we were, 25 or 30 years later, 1,500 miles away from home and still at it.
The past 16 months, the 650 miles I ran, the sweets I sacrificed, the 10,000 push-ups and sit-ups, all converged to contribute to the singular moment when I stepped onto the mat in my plain black singlet and shiny new headgear.
We shook hands. The ref blew the whistle. The part of the story that I thought would fall into place did not go as planned. We tied up. His arms gripped mine like iron vices. Again, I faced another opponent who dwarfed my strength. I had quickness and better mat sense. But I struggled to escape from his grip when he clamped my arms.
I made a mistake. I tried too hard to extricate myself from his grip and loosen enough space to try and score on him. I had an overhook with my right arm and just needed to free my underhook arm to attempt my headlock on him. With 10 or 12 seconds to go in the period, if I threw it and missed, I could scramble to avoid giving up the takedown, maybe roll out of bounds and keep the score level at 0-0.
Instead, I struggled enough to tip myself slightly off balance and raise my head a hair too high.
With eight seconds left in the period, he hit me with a headlock of his own. His technique was not nearly as fluid or graceful as mine, but what he lacked in mechanics, he more than made up in brute force. I thought for a moment, as I felt my body twist and descend to the mat, that I could stop it. However, he pulled it off and made the move work. With the headlock, he scored a two-point takedown and three additional points for exposing a portion of my back to the mat for greater than five seconds.
I never expected to yield the headlock. It’s my move - damnit. I almost never give it up to an opponent. But then again, I had wrestled only six matches in the past 20 years. So, anticipating my own patterns, tendencies, limits and abilities had only sparing accuracy and predictability.
Apparently because of our advanced age, the periods in the Veterans Division were shorter than in typical wrestling matches. I saw this as a disadvantage since I had worked myself into such impeccable shape and would be able to outlast opponents who might be more likely to tire as the match progressed into the late end of the third period. I had beaten so many opponents in the third period throughout my wrestling career, specifically due to my usual high endurance and fitness and often with a last second “Hail Mary” headlock.
However, losing by the score of 5-0 with an abbreviated amount of time to bridge the gap against an accomplished and exceptionally strong wrestler such as my opponent proved too much of a disadvantage to overcome. We wrestled evenly throughout the second and third periods and I lost 6-1. The five-point move exposing my back during the first period created the rift between my one point and his six.
The shorter periods placed a higher premium on each point, especially against such a slow, methodical plodder as this opponent.
I didn’t feel tired after the match, but my arms throbbed from straining to overcome his grip. I needed to think through what went wrong and how to beat him in the second match. Down 1-0 in a best of three wrestle-off, I couldn’t lose another match, or the tournament would end for me.
The returning National Champion in the 138-pound weight class tapped me on the shoulder and congratulated me on a well-fought match. He told me he thought I could win, but that I couldn’t look for a throw. I would have to shoot for his legs and stay out of his upper body tie-up. He was just too strong and could muscle me to the mat at my slightest misstep.
“Just don’t give up the big move and you’re right there against him,” he said.
It felt great to have a returning national champion watch me wrestle, provide some analysis and advice and then encourage me in my next match. I took his words to heart. As much as I had pictured myself throwing glorious headlocks and pinning opponents in crushing high octane moves, the loss reminded me that this was the National Championship and not a Division III dual meet against Bridgewater State or the local Connecticut State Nutmeg Games.
I hadn’t just set a goal to compete. I reached for the absolute highest rung of the ladder that I could. And along the way, I reached every goal I sought. I lost the weight. I trained myself to run 10-13 miles at a time. I increased my meager strength to the best of my ability and I wrestled in a variety of challenging situations. I beat a 20-year-old wrestler to place third in Connecticut and I scored on several of the guys from my college when I worked out with them.
All my objectives had fallen into place for me. And, while I had to work hard to accomplish what I did, I experienced success at every turn. I dropped from 201 to 167. Then I reset my goal to 152 and 138, eventually getting all the way down to a ridiculously low 125.4.
In the second match, he took me down to take a 2-0 lead, but I felt more confident than I had in the previous match. I managed to reverse control and take the top position from him. I wrestled a smart match and equaled him move for move. I entered the second period with a 4-2 advantage. But he managed to smack me with another five-point move, exposing my back to the mat and retaking the lead, 7-4. I’d love to say I made another mistake. But to his credit, my opponent showed great technique and used his overpowering strength to make it work. I had to fight for an entire minute - a virtual eternity in wrestling time - to avoid allowing him to pin both of my shoulders to the mat for the win.
I had a productive third period, completely dominating him from the top position. I worked a power half nelson with double grapevines, which consists of my legs wrapped around his with my hips trapping his flush to the mat. With his lower body immobilized, I cranked his head sideways, rotating his upper body toward his back and scored two points to up the score to 7-6, one point away from tying the match.
After earning my points, I worked the same move a second time. I pressured his lower body. I punished his head and torqued his neck. His shoulders rotated as they had previously. He let out a gruesome moan and exhaled. I applied all the strength I could. He groaned again. His back edged toward the mat in increments of tiny nudges at a time. I could hear his coach calling out the seconds left in the third and final period.
“20 seconds,” he called out. “Ten seconds… Five seconds…”
I needed to move him one more inch, maybe another 5-degree angle to earn two additional points and take an 8-7 lead. He bent, but didn’t break. The time ran out. I lost 7-6. My dream to win the national championship would have to wait.