Imagine working for hundreds of hours over several years to realize a dream. Imagine needing just one more victory to achieve that goal. Now, imagine walking side-by-side with someone who has the same goal, but if he wins, you lose.
That’s exactly what will happen on Saturday afternoon at the Nebraska State Wrestling Tournament during the “Parade of Champions,” one of the neatest annual traditions in Nebraska high school sports. In the final three hours of the three-day state wrestling tournament, 56 wrestlers will end their wrestling season with the referee raising their hand as a state champion. Another 56 will experience a level of dejection that they have probably never experienced and might not ever experience again. For two minutes though, they all experience the Parade of Champions.
I first saw the Parade of Champions in 1989, as a college freshman, when I attended the tournament with a classmate who had won championships the previous two years. I last saw the Parade of Champions last year, 26 years later, as the parent of a wrestler who came up one match short of participating in the Parade. The format has changed slightly over the years, as well as the venue, but the intensity remains extremely high, even for a spectator in the stands.
The wrestlers enter the 15,000-seat arena walking side-by-side with the opponents they will face in their championship matches. The public announce system will play Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” as they are led in a processional which will end with opponents facing each other on the very mat upon which they will decide the championship. The 15,000-plus fans will be on their feet cheering for wrestlers who typically wrestle in front of a few hundred – their successes often relegated to the box score section of the sports page. It’s an incredible affirmation of their journey.
(You can see video of the ceremony at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vq0CiBDBbxA (skip ahead to the 2 minute mark) or at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f2r_6n-BrLY for a version of the Parade that happened before most of these wrestlers were born.)
To get here, they each won three consecutive matches in a bracket containing the other 14 state-qualifying wrestlers in their weight class. Those guys are either in the stands, wishing they were on floor, or on the bus on their way home. For months, and most often years, the championship contenders have trained for this moment. They have endured some of the most intense practices a high school athlete can endure. They have made countless sacrifices to get here. Many haven’t tasted soda or fast food since November, as they transformed their bodies into lean wrestling machines.
Most of them have missed the championship match in previous years, so they understand the significance of the moment. In fact, they have likely dreamt about this moment, as they left practice, sore, tired and worried about their next match. To convince themselves to persist in their journey, they have probably pictured where they will display their championship medal.
Their coaches, teammates, friends and family will watch with bated breath, hoping their wrestlers will end the season with their hand held high. There will be celebrations for the winners and a long, restless night for the losers. The seniors know that this will be their last chance to make a dream come true. The underclassmen don’t know what the future holds, and as wrestlers, they know that they must seize their opportunity, because there is no entitlement in wrestling.
The entire scene is a microcosm of life. Long after the wrestlers unlace their wrestling shoes for the last time, they will experience adulthood’s shocking successes and crushing disappointments. It’s unlikely that their subsequent victories and defeats will be broadcast statewide and happen in front of an arena of expectant eyes, but they will take the lessons they learned on this stage and benefit from them.
Whether they land the big job or lose the major account, they will understand that both victory and defeat are temporary and that they must continue to apply themselves and the lessons they learned in order to reach their goals, like they did to be right here, in this moment.
We all have had pinnacles in our lives – moments when our dreams were realized or crushed – so it should be easy for us to empathize with the drama from our seat in the arena or from our sofa at home. That’s what makes sports so compelling. You don’t have to be an athlete to recognize the emotion.
This is real reality TV, and it’s available on public television at 3 pm this Saturday, if you can’t be at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, you can see all of the final matches online at http://netnebraska.org/basic-page/sports/nsaa-high-school-championships.