It's Friday night and I am in a Coralville, Iowa hotel room, a little weary from the four-hour drive from Chicago west on 88 and then even farther west on 80, past texting truck drivers and horizontal snow winds, miles of empty ice-dusted fields and about 1,000 signs for Subway. It's comforting knowing all those Subways house all the same ingredients-- chicken cubes, peppers, wheels of tomatoes, those loaves of bread, sliced swiftly. I just finished putting six turkey, cheese and spinach sandwiches I made this morning and about a gallon of Vitamin Water in the small humming refrigerator for Colin to eat tomorrow after the weigh-ins for the Iowa City West quad against Apple Valley and Marmion.
The varsity team should arrive in a few hours, they were leaving after school. Already a few parents and some of our stalwart Oak Park-River Forest Huskies Wrestling Family fans have checked in; we passed in the lobby. The virtues of the adjacent IHOP have been discussed. Proximity was the tipping point in that restaurant review.
Driving here listening to a 70s and 80s radio station from the Quad Cities that lasted at least 100 miles of the trip, between the Stevie Nicks, Journey and Stevie Wonder, I was feeling a bit nostalgic. With a windshield view of grey ice ribbon pavement, I started to think of all the miles I have logged in nine years as a high school wrestling mom, some alone, some with Colin or Brendan in the backseat, some with Caryn or Danne at the wheel-- wrestling moms with as much stamina and vigor as any screaming sports fan I have ever seen on stadium shots on ESPN. Except we never paint our foreheads or bellies. At least not yet.
I started to write this column in my head and mull what I have learned about life in the stands of wrestling meets. Just sitting there has taught me a lot, and not just about the virtues of escape points and the gracefulness of a takedown, but about general human behavior on and off the mat. I came to be a spectator of this sport when my oldest son, Weldon, was in sixth grade in youth wrestling. He is now 23 and living in Madrid, going to graduate school.
So it has been a long time of stands-sitting, so much that I wonder why they call them stands and not "sits." With the benefit of hundreds, probably thousands of hours logged in the stands for 14 years when you count youth wrestling plus high school; Colin now in his final varsity year, I bet I have heard the shrill screech of billions of whistles. And every week, every season, some of the same scenes play out, over and over, like rendiitions of "CATS" or "RENT" in musical theaters in suburban strip malls across America.
Tomorrow all day I will be in another high school gym, this one in Iowa City. Oh yes, I have learned that all high school gyms across America look pretty much alike-- sure they have different colors and mascots and some stands even have backs to the seats-- but once you are sitting in the stands, the view is pretty much the same. The lessons I have learned watching wrestling have been not just about the sport, or my sons, but about other people, life and of course, myself.
1. Focus. If there are six or eight mats in a gym, all with simultaneous wrestling matches, you could look away, have a piece of lint in your eye or chat with the mother next to you and miss your son's match entirely. You have to pay attention. Listen for his name. Follow him to make sure you know where he will be. Then don't look away. The three two-minute periods feel like an eternity when your son is up against someone who looks like he is made of metal, but you need to concentrate, watch carefully and pay attention. Life, like a wrestling match, goes by quickly. The clock moves relentleslly forward. Daydream and you will miss the entire reason you are here.
2. Accountability. For a wrestler on the mat, it's just him. He is alone out there with all the tricks from practice, his coach's moves, his own self-talk and plans to have his hand held in the air at the end. He can blame no one. This is something he does alone. It's true in wrestling, it's true in life. Every takedown is yours, every escape, every pin, every mistake. This sports teaches humility as well as pride. There is no hiding. From the stands, every single young man looks brave. On the mat, every single wrestler owns his actions. More people should believe in that simple truth.
3. Redemption. Every match is a chance to prove yourself. Every second you can change the outcome. It's a hard sport and all of us in the stands? We are marvelling that you keep coming back to the center to try again, 20 times a two-minute period, 100 times a tournament. We scream your name because you cannot rest on your record, your record is up for erasure every single time you meet an opponent. But you can redeem yourself. Last week's loss is this week's major. Even if you are losing, you can escape, dominate and pin your opponent. Then nothing that happened before in that match matters. You won. I love that part about wrestling. At any second you can dominate and reclaim your intent. We all know this is true, but it is magnified, its importance amplified in wrestling. At any point, you can regain it all and win.
4. Recovery. At most every tournament someone gets hurt. A nose bleed mostly, a broken arm, separated shoulder or concussion at the worst. As in life, the clock stops for blood time. The clock stops for injury. You get to pick yourself up and let the trainer wipe off the blood, off you, off your opponent, off the mat. Then, nine times out of ten, go back to wrestling. You'll recover. Just go back and try again. We all will heal. From everything.
5. Sometimes you get a bad referee. Everyone who has ever had a bad boss can attest to the validity of this one. Sometimes the guy in the black striped shirt (occasionally it's a woman), is too slow to call a pin, too fast to call a stall, or won't begin to count for back points, and you can do nothing about it. Sometimes the ref skews the calls in your favor, sometimes against your team. But if you act like a jerk and argue from the stands, the ref will get mad and tell you to stop and maybe ask you to leave. This isn't professional boxing, it's high school. If the coach argues with the calls too much, he looks like a jerk and if the wrestler argues, well, that's maybe a point for the other team. The life lesson is to get this: Sometimes you are not in control and it doesn't seem fair because it's not.
6. Integrity shows. The wrestler who throws his headgear after a loss, shoves an opponent, deliberately pokes an eye or --this one kills me-- refuses to shake the hand of the opposing coach or the wrestler who just beat him, looks like a jackass. Even at 14, even after you went to your back and were pinned in the first period, you can still get up and show that you respect the other team and the sport. And yourself. Even if your father is screaming at you and you want to cry, shake the other coach's hand. The gym is watching. When you grow up, you are the guy no one wants to see outside of work, the guy no one invites to parties. Show you know how to be respectful. Because who you are shows.
7. Make the choice. On any given Saturday, or for that matter Thursday or Friday night, I am quite sure we could all find other things to do. Shovel the driveway. Put in a load of laundry. Go grocery shopping. Drink wine. Sleep late. Work. Watch one of those housewives of wherever shows. But you chose to come to the gym and to watch your son wrestle. Shout for the team. Applaud like crazy if he wins. Buy him a Gatorade. Pat him on the back if he loses. Look sympathetic. Just do not complain while you are sitting there. Choose to be present. You are not martyred by your child's participation in a sport he may love. It doesn't matter if all your parents ever did was drop you off at practice and pick you up when the game was over, with this sport, you are going to stay until it is over. And you are not going to moan that you could have gone somewhere else. It's six minutes at a time. Choose. Smile. Because it is the right choice.
8. You will like like-minded people. The kind of person who spends many hours a week watching wrestling, washing wrestling gear and agonizing over weigh-ins is probably someone you will like to be friends with. This is not a glamorous sport. This is a tough sport without cute uniforms. There are no cheerleaders. Again, my unscientific observation is that close to 80 percent of the parents sitting in the stands are selfless, kind people who would help their kid anyway they can. They like the sport. You can talk to other parents and find this common ground. You can share a joke. You can compliment each other's children. And you can make friends.
9. It's better to be prepared. Take the half-hour to make the turkey sandiwches for yourself and your wrestler to eat at the tournaments. This way you will not have to buy the pizza, donuts or old popcorn at the concession stands. Watching wrestling makes you hungry, so chances are all the weight your child has to lose in season, will find its way to your backside if you don't pack your own food. Last time I checked you don't burn many calories watching wrestling. The wrestlers burn the calories. Not the wrestling moms. Yes, some parents go overboard and bring the coffin-sized coolers filled with food. But just know that you will save yourself money and saturated fats, by thinking ahead.
10. It feels good to win. Honestly, it just does. In life, it feels good to get the raise, the promotion, the contract, the award, the applause. Imagine standing in a sweaty singlet, having been nearly crushed by another human in a sweaty singlet, with your hand raised in the air for hundreds of people to see. You won. You did it. I have a lot of photos of my boys with their hands in the air-- Weldon, Brendan and Colin. I want them to remember the moment, to own it, to know they worked hard to get that feeling.
And I want them to know I was in the stands watching.