Just minutes prior to the start of the Mat Classic state wrestling tournament championship matches, an inspiring rendition of the National Anthem was performed in front of a packed house at the Tacoma Dome on Feb. 16.
The performance by the unknown singer sent chills down my spine.
It was just one of the many times I experienced the sensation of goosebumps at my favorite sporting event of the year. This year’s Mat Classic state wrestling tournament, which took place on Feb. 15-16 at the Tacoma Dome, was the 13th time I’ve covered the tournament during my career as a sportswriter. There is nothing else like the Mat Classic in the world of high school sports. Wrestlers from every corner of Washington battle it out on the mat for a chance to have their arm hoisted in the air as a state champion in their respective weight divisions.
The wondrous work ethic wrestlers possess on and off the mat is undeniable. It isn’t the most glamorous sport in the world, but its probably the sport I enjoy covering the most. There is just something about watching two athletes face off in a one-on-one battle. There is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. In wrestling you truly get to see what an athlete is made of. It just isn’t about talent, it’s about intestinal fortitude, doggedness and willpower to push through the pain in pursuit of a victory. There is absolutely no victim mentality in wrestling and there is no one to point the finger at following a defeat.
CAMARADERIE AT ITS FINEST
While I thoroughly enjoy covering the matches at the Mat Classic, it isn’t the only reason why I love the tournament.
When you’ve covered a tourney for 13 years, you see many of the same faces year in and year out. The wrestling community is tight-knit. Coaches, officials, athletic directors and media members naturally get to know each other quite well over the course of several years. Many of the wrestlers I have covered in yesteryear are now currently coaches themselves. Throughout the course of the two-day tournament, I shake hands with probably 50-60 people. Seeing those old faces and reconnecting with them feels like I’m attending my 10-year high school reunion.
You would think those emotions would wither away but I discover that every year the feeling of euphoria actually intensifies. I may look forward to covering the tournament, but I eagerly anticipate catching up with the myriad of familiar faces even more. It is the best of both worlds.
Many of the people I look forward to seeing the most are the individuals I covered during my seven-year stint at the Puyallup Herald (November of 2007 through July of 2014). Two of those people are Rogers Rams coaches David Johnston and Justin Rambow. In the winter of 2014, they invited me to be their guest speaker at the Rogers Rams wrestling banquet. I felt honored by their gesture and it’s something I will never forget.
One of the funniest stories from my experiences at the Mat Classic occurred in February of 2013. I was standing next to Johnston and Rambow just outside the fence line while we waited for Rogers senior 152-pound wrestler Damian Jackson’s Class 4A fifth/sixth-place match against Heritage’s Gabe Morales. The consolation round was running a tad behind schedule on that mat, so we had more time than usual before Jackson was on deck. While waiting for Jackson to wrestle in the final match of his high school career, the conversation turned to the furthest thing away from wrestling. I told Johnston, Rambow and Jackson about a video that was posted in 2008 of me competing in an eating challenge on YouTube. The Rogers trio laughed and said they wanted to see evidence of the competition. For the next three or four minutes, we huddled around my archaic iPhone to watch me consume 40 chicken nuggets from McDonalds in under eight minutes (video was around four minutes long). In retrospect, it probably wasn’t the best time to show off my eating skills. Luckily Jackson defeated Morales 1-0 in the final match of his high school career so I didn’t have to feel guilty for distracting him! Rambow, Johnston and I laughed about that story at the Mat Classic on Feb. 16.
HOMETOWN MEMORIES REKINDLED
There is one person I actively seek out at every single Mat Classic I cover.
Amick, who was my fifth-grade teacher at Sand Hill Elementary School in Belfair in the early 1990s, was the North Mason High School wrestling head coach for 41 years from 1965 through 2006. Amick, who was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2013, is a fixture at the Mat Classic every single year. This is a guy who has coached thousands of kids over five decades and yet still remembers my full name and asks how my mom is doing. I don’t know many people that possess that ability, let alone somebody as long in tooth as Amick (he graduated high school in 1958). One of my first experiences in organized sports involved Amick. In the late 1980s, I was obsessed with Hulk Hogan and the World Wrestling Federation. One day, my dad suggested I actually I compete in “real” wrestling. Luckily for me, I discovered that elementary wrestling was available at the high school mat room and would be conducted by North Mason’s head coach (Amick).
I was pumped.
Everything went fantastic until the final portion of the very first practice. We practiced defensive postures and as Amick went through the line, I didn’t get my hands up in time and Amick accidentally knocked my tooth out! Being just in the second grade, I started crying immediately. Amick calmed me down and my dad, who was watching practice, said to me, “Next time get your hands up son!” I was back for the second day of practice the following day. It didn’t deter me from the sport in the least bit.
While visiting with Amick on Feb. 16, we discussed the story from 1989. It is something we will both always remember. The sport of wrestling is special. It brings people together, teaches work ethic and instills a never-say-die attitude. I can’t wait for the 2020 Mat Classic.