Posts Tagged toughness
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.
Tough people inspire me through moments of weakness. When I pull myself out of bed and grit my teeth in a struggle to stand straight, I think of the soldier guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and my discomfort fades away. When I’m tired at the end of the workday, I think of my grandfather and his days working the sugar beet fields of Western Nebraska during the 1930s, and I’m reenergized.
We need more tough people in the world today – people who persevere without pity. Tough people show us the potential of the human spirit. Tough people show us how to handle adversity. Tough people keep us from feeling sorry for ourselves.
Wrestlers are tough people. Wrestling demands both physical and mental toughness. It’s difficult to understand the level of toughness involved in wrestling, if you’ve never wrestled. Most people see three two-minute rounds and mistakenly believe that their workouts of equal length are equivalent. Unless those workouts are against an adversary of comparable strength and size who is resisting your every move, they are wrong.
I made that mistake myself as a high school sophomore. It probably wasn’t wise, and though he refused to do it for football, my doctor signed off on my sports physical for wrestling. I was grateful for the opportunity to compete and excited to cash in on the hundreds of hours I had spent in the weight room. Then, reality struck.
Wrestling practices are brutal. We ran. We sometimes carried each other while we ran. We wrestled each other, and then we ran some more. Not only were we trying to increase our strength and stamina, we were also trying to eliminate any non-productive body weight. If we weighed more than we should, we would risk wrestling a better-conditioned opponent who weighed what he should. 160-pounders often played football at 180 pounds. You didn’t want to be at 160 pounds if you could be at 152 or 145. To avoid that, you had to be aware of your condition at all times, especially when your friends ordered pizza.
Tough people are disciplined. They can deny themselves comfort and resist temptations. Wrestlers drag themselves to practice almost every day, knowing that they could be going home for a nap and lounge time instead, and many do it on an empty stomach. Wrestling practices are a brutal affair, as coaches push their athletes to do more with their bodies and minds than they think they can. Athletes who have participated in multiple sports will tell you that nothing compares wrestling practice. A fairly successful and now retired wrestler recently told me, “Everyone hates practice, but everyone loves winning. Wrestling teaches that practice enables winning.” That’s a pretty good lesson for a high school or college athlete to learn.
It all culminates on the mat, in front of a crowd that is noticeably smaller than those who attend football and basketball games. Though the crowds are smaller, it’s hard to beat the passion of wrestling fans. Many of us have a history in the sport ourselves or we live with a wrestler and thus have a front-row seat to the struggles and sacrifices of a wrestling season. Our hearts are on the mats with the wrestlers we cheer for.
On the mat, wrestlers strain to make their burning muscles do things that their opponent’s burning muscles won’t or to make themselves endure discomfort that their opponent won’t. A wrestling match is often as much a match of will as it is a match of skill and physicality. Those who have conditioned their minds to overcome obstacles and to push back fear give themselves an edge. That’s why wrestling defeats hurt so much. It’s tough to realize that you gave everything and still came up short – another good life lesson.
Later this week, in Nebraska, the state’s best high school wrestlers will compete for state championships. There will be 16 wrestlers in 14 weight classes for each of the state’s four school classes – 896 young athletes who enter the big stage with a big dream. By the end of the first day of competition, that dream will be over for all but 224 of them who qualify for the semi-finals on day 2. When whistles blow over the semi-finals, that number will be cut in half. In the finals on day 3, 56 will have their hand raised as champions of their weight class.
Though only 56 will be crowned champions, they are all champions of toughness who made themselves elite through rugged exceptionalism. Though they might not walk off the mat with championship medals, they will have earned a toughness that should inspire us all.