Headlock

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Chapter 6: Step 3: The Exercise Plan

Further research revealed that the New England Freestyle wrestling championships would take place in June. I could register for my USA Wrestling card, which afforded me the insurance needed to compete. And I could sign up for the tournament. It was about a month and a half away. I had broken the 180-pound mark and my weight hovered between 178 and 179 pounds. I felt good, strong, light on my feet and surprisingly confident.

But they didn’t offer age categories beyond the “Open” division. This meant that I could face wrestlers in their 30s, 20s and even their late teens including 18 or 19-year-old college wrestlers. Nonetheless, I had no reservations about competing at this level. Sure, I’d struggle to use muscles that I haven’t used in years. Of course, the competition would be younger, quicker and stronger. I had knowledge, experience and - I believed - just enough wind, strength and pop in my hips to gut through the physical gruel of it.

As I ran every other night in the brisk evening air, I visualized all my moves. I imagined wrestling through a cadre of young, muscle-bound college-level opponents. I played out how I would tie up with them, what take-down set-ups I would use. I worked through various throws and pinning finishes. In my mind, I understood how tired and worn down the matches would render me and I resolved to try and pin my opponents as quickly as possible to avoid having to gut through too many actual minutes of mat wrestling.

I had executed Step 1: The Food Plan, Step 2: The Measurement Plan and Step 3: The Exercise Plan. And to some degree, I had also initiated Step 4: The Disclosure plan.

The premise behind the Disclosure Plan dictated that in order to achieve an ambitious stretch goal, the more friends, family and associates that know about it, the more the people around you can encourage you to accomplish that goal.

For instance, if you make a New Year’s resolution to stop drinking soda, but don’t tell anyone, then in your first moment of weakness where you take out a bottle of soda and pour yourself a small sip, nobody knows to question you or discourage you from breaking your resolution.

Conversely, if the people around you are all aware of your goal to exercise and lose weight, they tend to ask about your approach and take interest in your progress. You find yourself wanting people to see you making the right choices because you know they are observing your actions, trying to understand how you plan to accomplish your goal and watching for signs that you may falter or fail.

The more people you tell, the more you don’t want to publicly fall short.

I had already told my family about my objective to lose weight, increase my fitness and compete in the nationals. I had locked it down in my mind. The time to share it with others had arrived.

I had lunch scheduled with an old friend. We both played college sports. He was a Division I pitcher. We had worked together at a previous company and played softball together. When he went through his divorce, I spent hours on the phone listening to him and helping him through his difficult time. He was a formerly heavy guy that had also trimmed down. His motivation stemmed from a few issues he had with his heart.

At lunch, he referred to himself as having newly become a pescatarian. He ate fish, but no other land-based meats. He said he needed to change his diet due to a series of stints that he had in his heart and the risk of heart disease that he carried with him.

I told him about my Food Plan and Exercise Plan. And I revealed that I wanted to train for the nationals. His face lit up and he wished me the best of luck. He wanted to learn more about it and I explained how the weight classes worked, where and when the tournament would be and how I planned to continue to train for it.

It felt great to tell him and have someone else exhibit nearly the same interest about it that I felt. My kids were excited, but also quite caught up with their own activities. And my wife had considerably more apprehension about it than enthusiasm.

Having successfully told my old friend, I thought about disclosure in other areas of my life. I should tell my brother and my Dad. I could share it with my co-workers, the guys with whom I coach my sons’ baseball teams and eventually other random Dads in town that I saw from time to time.

I worried that people might find this endeavor to be weird. There are still many people who think of wrestling as the sport where guys roll around with each other in tights. I hardly needed everyone in town picturing me in these cartoonish terms. So, I decided to mete out my disclosure slowly, like a release valve.

We had a work team dinner at a New York pizza parlor one night. I hadn’t planned on disclosing my story. But for one, my co-workers who see me as often as my family, had already started to notice my weight loss and for two, with all the food thrown before us, a few of them observed my tepid eating habit.

When asked if I was losing weight, I decided to disclose the big picture and tell them about wrestling in the nationals. Their overwhelming interest made me feel pretty good about myself. They asked questions. They wished me luck. Most of the team consisted of young women in their mid-twenties who knew little about wrestling as a sport. They asked interesting questions around who I would wrestle, where the opponents would come from and what I had to do to reach my optimal weight and peak fitness.

One of the girls generated a good laugh when she tried to conceptualize a bunch of men her dad’s age wrestling each other and asked the question of the night.

“What do these guys look like?” she said.

“I don’t know,” I answered. “But if I see any cute guys, I’ll give them your number.”

So now, in the office, on a fairly regular basis, my co-workers would innocently ask me how it was going. Did I go running last night? How am I feeling?

They also commented on my appearance as I broke the 176 mark and floated down toward the milestone of 175.

“You look great.”

“You’re getting so skinny.”

“How do you do it?”

I had plateaued at five miles and decided to stay with that exact distance as it enabled me to benchmark myself and watch my time drift downward into the high 30’s. I changed my focus from expanding my distance to increasing my pace.

The night I broke 175 and weighed out at 174, I threw both arms into the air. I was alone in the bathroom. I had just turned on the shower. I could barely see my reflection in the fog of the mirror. But I felt like I had an arena of fans cheering for me. I had thought it would take the whole year to get down to 167.5. But now, less than 60 days into the process, I was starting to think I could make it in a few months and then maintain that weight for the better part of the year. This would allow me to settle in and get used to weighing in the high 60s by the turn of the year, in time to feel strong at the nationals.

I joked with myself that maybe I should consider continuing to drop down to the 152-pound weight class. But I knew that might be a pipedream and expelled the thought from my head.

Having told my co-workers, I revealed my news to the co-coaches of my sons’ baseball team. My wife told a few of her friends.

I visited my Dad in Rhode Island and told him. He beamed for me. Always my coach and my biggest fan, my Dad spent my lifetime building me up in every possible way. He never missed a game or match or meet of mine. And he certainly never passed up an opportunity to pad my confidence and celebrate my successes with me. I found it heartwarming to share my quest with him and sit at his kitchen table reminiscing about my childhood and all the sports accomplishments our family racked up over the years.

By contrast, my wife turned to me one night and asked an interesting question. The question had a seemingly easy answer. I wondered how she could even ask, although, at the same time, I guess I could see her perspective.

“Why do you even want or need to do this?” she asked. “What do you have to prove wrestling a bunch of kids 30 years younger than you?

“You already had your shot and you won,” she continued. “You already won the New England’s in college. You have nothing left to prove.”

In many ways, she was right.

I compared my sports experience growing up to several of my friends. I had friends that played on a handful of youth sports teams, but never enjoyed the exuberance of winning a championship. They had never experienced the ego boost of being looked at as the best on the team, the best in the league, the best in the state. They had never had their photo published in the paper, holding a trophy. They didn’t walk down the street in the center of town and have random kids from school and their parents congratulate you out of the blue for your latest achievement.

That thought presents a strange alternate reality for me as I experienced each of those scenarios throughout my youth and into my High School and even College years.

I had won state championships in youth hockey and high school Varsity Soccer. Individually, I was named the MVP in hockey and wrestling tournaments. When I was 11, I won the try out to represent my town at a professional hockey game in the mini one-on-one competition with 30,000 people watching. I won our high school wrestling conference tournament all four years. I was the first wrestler ever to win the Bristol Central Invitational Tournament four straight years. I was also the first wrestler in the history of my high school to finish the season with a perfect 18-0 record. And I won the MVP trophy for the highest point scorer on the Avon High School wrestling team two years in a row as a Junior and a Senior, also the first to win it more than once.

I qualified for and wrestled in the Junior Nationals every summer throughout high school. I qualified to fly to Pensacola, Florida for the trials for the USA World wrestling team. I won countless regional Freestyle and Greco Roman tournaments every year for about a ten-year stretch including the Eastern Regionals and the AAU Eastern Nationals. In college, I won the Ithaca tournament, beating Dave Hirsch, the eventual NCAA Division I national champ two years later. I even competed in the 1988 regional Olympic Trials as a college sophomore.

After college, I took home a couple hundred dollars in the handful of volleyball tournaments that I won with Roger. My men’s league hockey team won five championships over a ten-season period. My co-ed corporate volleyball team won seven championships in 13 seasons. I was named the best defensive player in the league. I have no less than three dozen trophies – real trophies granted for actually winning a competition – and more than 50 medals, all sitting on a shelf in my basement. And, I continued to win major Open wrestling tournaments after college throughout Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey until I was 28 years old.

My wife was right. I had nothing to prove. But loving to win entails also loving to continue to prove to others - and more importantly to yourself - that you can be the best in any or every endeavor you attempt. I wanted to wrestle in the New Englands because I honestly thought I could adequately prepare myself to succeed. And I wanted to win again, simply because I enjoyed doing it.

I had a few weeks to train for the New Englands. I had broken 170 much more easily than I had expected. Between 174 and 170, I seemed to lose a half-pound on a daily basis. I approached my weight class, only about six months sooner than expected and eventually dropped below 167.5, hitting 167, 166 and even 165.

At one point, a pair of co-workers failed to recognize me after a long weekend having seen me only four days earlier. My appearance changed almost daily. My pants ceased to fit. I had to poke new holes in all my belts and I started wearing my sons’ old clothes that they had outgrown.

Not only did my legs look more sculpted than ever, my stomach had all but disappeared. It flattened dramatically and I had the two dents on either side of my actual stomach muscles, which had reemerged after a 20-year absence. My face drew inward noticeably. I had carved myself down to only one chin. And my rounded cheeks deflated like an overcooked soufflé.

People in town innocently asked if I had lost weight. And friends and relatives I hadn’t seen in some time, took a double take when they saw me as if not even recognizing me at first.

My wife dreaded the actual competition. She worried I’d break my neck or come home with ringworm. I explained how the mats are cleaned with anti-bacterial chemicals and how wrestlers are routinely checked for skin rashes before each match. The web site for the tournament explicitly stated that there would be a professional skin check. And, after 40-plus years of playing sports, I had barely suffered any injuries, save one hurt neck in college for half of one season.

“I’m made of rubber,” I assured her.

She also briefly cautioned me against trending toward anorexia, citing some CNN article about wresters being more susceptible to the disorder.

“I just hope we don’t have to replace your entire wardrobe,” she lamented.

My oldest son told me one day in the car as we drove to his baseball game together that he was proud of me for losing the weight and whipping myself into shape. It made me happy to hear him express that thought.

“But, you’re just not strong enough to wrestle yet,” he added. “You’ve done a good job losing weight and getting in running shape, but now you have to put on some muscle.

As much as I didn’t want to hear that, he may have been correct. I had never been a muscular wrestler. I hated lifting weights and avoided it like the plague. For one season, I lifted and built up some muscle during my sophomore year in high school. But I have shunned weightlifting ever since. In college at Division I Central Connecticut State University, we had required weightlifting sessions. I used to purposely arrive late, blaming it on a class overrunning its time and leave early for similar reasons. I’d get in the longest line for a machine and wait until there was one person left. Then just before reaching the front of the line, I’d change my mind and go wait in another line.

Sure, I was probably cheating myself. But bulking up was not part of my plan. I was more inclined to run extra miles, do more push-ups, jump rope for longer than anyone else, drill before practice and stay late for extra instruction.

As a result, I was rail thin, quick, wiry and surprisingly strong for such a slight frame. I won on speed and execution and I succeeded with the matter between my ears. For every move my opponents threw at me, I had two counters. And I had a relentless offensive style, looking to score at every moment of every match, that stifled even the fittest of opponents.

Many wrestlers used a slow, plodding style where they would bide their time, await a mistake, score a point or two and then stall for the duration of the match to cling to their meager lead. Not me. I’m a pinner. Up 2-0, I wanted to reach 4-0. Up 4-0, I wanted to get to double digits. Up 10-0, I wanted to put away my opponent by pin. And if I couldn’t secure the pin, I at least wanted to wear down my opponents with non-stop action and constant pressure.

As an example, I observed that every wrestler fights hard in the circle. But as soon as they go out of bounds and the ref blows the whistle to bring them back to the center, virtually every wrestler takes a moment to collect their breath, listen to their coach and straighten out their heads before working their way back into the center to restart.

I saw this as a way to gain a mental advantage over my opponents.

Whenever going out of bounds in my matches, I sprinted back to the center of the mat, crouched down into an aggressive “ready” stance and waited for my opponent to pick themselves up and meet me there. Sometimes I subtly tapped my foot, like I couldn’t wait to keep wrestling. Oftentimes, the refs, upon seeing me ready to go, beckoned my opponent to hurry back into the ring.

The tactic frustrated and demoralized anyone who thought they might get a moment to breathe and a few words of encouragement from their coach. It deprived them of the mental break they expected. And it sent a message that I wasn’t tired, sore or in any way intimidated and I couldn’t wait to keep coming after them.

So maybe my son hit the nail on the head. Maybe I could be out-muscled. But I knew the sport inside and out. I had not lost much quickness in my legs and hips. And assuming I could reach a level of fitness that would enable me to survive six minutes on the mat with younger, stronger opponents, I liked my chances of at least competing admirably.

Plus, I still had my headlock. And I knew I could always rely on that big knock-out punch to pull out a win or two.

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