A Column by Todd Gurnow, Ameritime Sports Content Coordinator
I had the good pleasure of attending most of the action on Friday and Saturday at Hillsboro High School, as girls from 49 schools competed at the Class 1, District 1 wrestling tournament. Let me first preface this column by saying this is not an article about girls overcoming stereotypes, obstacles, or bias. I would be writing this same column about boys. This is a column about athletes. This is a column about coaches who love athletes like they were their fathers or mothers. This is a column about people coming together for the benefit of young people to have experiences that they will never forget.
Friday and Saturday’s competition was inspiring in so many different ways. Perched on the second level, I got the opportunity to observe a lot of different behaviors. I’m not begrudging any media members at all. I’ve spent a lot of time on the floor or field in the middle of the action. You have to…to get the good photo, or to get a real sense of what is happening as the action unfolds. I was on the second level out of necessity…I was covering three schools. I sometimes had all three mats occupied by “my” wrestlers, and there was no way I could take photos of all three matches if I was on the floor. But I was also glad I wasn’t in anyone’s way. I positioned myself where there were no fans behind me, and I was still able to do my job…hopefully pretty well. Because in these two days, I discovered what was really important here. It was important for the grandmother to see her granddaughter doing something she loved. It was important for that grandmother to scream at the top of her lungs, even though there was no way her granddaughter was going to hear it. It was important that those two would meet after the match, embrace, and offer appreciation for what both had done.
I’m telling you, if you missed coming this weekend, you missed out on an experience. Every sense tingled. Every emotion was touched. And when the Hillsboro School District took this on, I can tell you, there was a lot of excitement…and a lot of questions about how to deal with so many teams and so many people. Girls wrestling, because of its relative newness, only competes in one class with four districts dividing up the state. But that’s what made this experience unique. We may never see this many athletes come together at Hillsboro High School again. In realization of this, I did a lot of observing when my eye wasn’t looking through a camera lens.
The folks from Hillsboro that put this together were remarkable. Was this a flawless production? I’m sure they’d say it wasn’t, but how could anyone expect that? Watching the Hawk coaches weaving their way through the masses to make sure officials were taken care of, volunteers were stationed where they were suppose to be, even filling in when folks took a little too long to come back from breaks, was admirable. Watching Coach Mitchell whack a referee on the back with a foam noodle was priceless. But they did what they had to do to make this special for everyone involved. And administrators helping out where needed, volunteers, Hawks athletes, parents…all doing whatever it took to make this happen…truly inspiring. And here’s the tough thing when a school hosts an event like this. Sometimes, your own team becomes secondary. It’s the sacrifice you sometimes have to make. But you know what? It didn’t happen this past weekend. Oh no…those coaches were there supporting their girls. Teammates, and fellow athletes, would stop their duties temporarily to make sure those girls giving their all on the mat were aware of their support. And that was the reward for hosting the event. All the family, friends, and acquaintances were there for the Hawks…how cool was that? But I bet they would have traveled wherever they needed to go to support the girls anyway.
And Tim Arnold…you sir, were amazing. I know you had some help, but for you to keep everything rolling, pronounce MOST of the names correctly, and do it with style and authority? I would want no one else trying to keep this three-ring circus moving right along.
As I noted earlier, I was nestled in the corner in front of a bunch of baseball screens next to the Steighorst retired jersey banner. I fought myself for two days about whether I should move. Until you see your photos on the computer, you just never know if they’re good enough to post. I knew that if I would get closer, I’d have a better shot at some decent pictures. But then I’d think, where would I go? I would hate to be in front of a dad who hadn’t seen his girl wrestle all season. I’d hate to be sitting on the edge of the mat and be in the way of a trainer if they were needed. So I stayed put. If I went down there, I’d miss the experience that I had. My back would be to everyone. I wouldn’t see the little boy wrestling with his dad in the bleachers. I wouldn’t be able to watch the Poplar Bluff girls interacting with their coaches, speaking about everything from strategic moves they could make in their next match, to their favorite food to eat after matches. I watched the Seckman team struggle with every move a teammate would make in each respective match.
You can’t see that from the floor.
I was a part of this experience. I had people come up and ask me what newspaper I was from. When I told them the story of Ameritime Sports and handed them my business card, almost to a person, they wished that their school would do something like this. During the lunch break on Saturday, I sat in the wrestling practice room that also doubles as the baseball batting cage area…and, to tell the truth, you could play a little shuffleboard if the urge hit you. But as I sat there and charged my phone, sophomore wrestler Jordan Jarvis of the Hawks’ boys squad came to get something out of the wrestling closet…yes, he was volunteering as well. After we exchanged pleasantries, as he was leaving, he said goodbye, and then he said words that blew me away…”Thanks for coming.”
Here’s a young man that had no real stake in this event. Yes, he’s a wrestler, and yes, he’s volunteering. But this is not his event…and he’s thanking me for coming? What is happening here?
I watched Genevieve Nickelson, the terrific senior wrestler from Ste. Genevieve, wander back there during the break. She had lost a very tough semifinal match. She’s one of the most focused young ladies I’ve seen wrestle at such a high level. Sometimes, it barely looks like she’s exerting any energy because her mind is racing a mile a minute during a match. I knew the loss had affected her. With her headphones on, she paced back and forth…no doubt reliving the match in her mind…thinking of the mistakes, correcting them in her head. I thought to myself…she’s not losing again today. And she didn’t. And I’m so happy she’ll be in Columbia.
And what about that brash freshman from Cape Central, La’Niaa Brown, who will be forever known as the first female wrestler to qualify for state from her school? I was able to experience her youthful exuberance, which sometimes could get out of control, now become a weapon as she matured before our very eyes. I’m really happy for her.
Which brings me to the crux of why I’m writing this. Oh, you could use all the cliches in the world to describe those two days. Yes, it was a “We Are The World” moment (I know I’m dating myself). We all came together to celebrate a sport that is taking off bigger and faster than we could have ever imagined. We saw the “Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat” (how many of you know where that comes from?). According to Tom Hanks, there may not be crying in baseball, but there’s crying in wrestling. I saw tears of joy…and why not? All that work, all that time, and now you’re a district champ! Or maybe you won your first match ever in a district tournament. It’s okay to let the emotions flow. And for those very same reasons, on the tough side of things, I saw tears when dreams weren’t realized. I saw tears of pain because of injuries. I saw young ladies so close to stamping their ticket to Columbia, only to see it snuffed out by an injury or a last second mistake. Why wouldn’t you cry? But they were never alone in either of those times…joy or sorrow. It was shared. Sometimes by just one person, but most of the time by three or four.
And there was still this guy in the far corner, trying to soak everything in and record it for posterity’s sake. I got involved too! I thrust my arm out when Ste. Gen’s Izzy Basler recorded a pin against Rockwood Summit that qualified her for state. I watched Izzy play basketball last winter, and softball in the spring. And this year, she tried her hand at wrestling, and now she’s headed to Columbia. How can I not be stoked about that? I cringed as Grace Johnson of Hillsboro looked like she was on her way to Columbia, and then just made one crucial mistake. And I laughed as Maggie Myracle won her second straight district title for Ste. Gen. She told me earlier in the season that she sometimes forgets to breathe…which I can imagine can be a little troubling for a wrestler. But I watched her that entire championship match, and she breathed just fine as she finished off a very tough wrestler from Lafayette.
This wrestling event proved to me that a retired English teacher from Festus can experience joy as kids continue to enrich his life even after he has left the classroom and the playing fields. He can still feel pride in the accomplishment of kids that he covers, and he can still hurt for those that worked so hard, but came up just a little short. I can admire the coaches that give so much back to their kids through their time, their efforts, and yes, their love for their athletes. And I know they have husbands and wives that sacrifice so much for them to pursue those coaching passions. I know…my wife did that for over 30 years. I can admire the administrators who serve with an unselfish heart to make sure the support is there. They don’t delegate…they participate. Not all administrators are like that, but every one that I saw this past weekend was exemplary.
I’m no Lou Gehrig (there’s another “old” reference), but I do consider myself the luckiest man in the world. I deal with the best kids, the best teachers, the best administrators, the best parents, and the best communities of Jefferson, Ste. Genevieve, Hillsboro, and Cape Central. I didn’t need a mega-wrestling event to prove that to me. I just needed that wrestling event to remind me of it. Thank you to everyone involved in pulling this off. And thank you for letting me be a part of it.