Novice wrestling

When I was in high school, all I really wanted was to be part of a team. I’d grown up playing on most of the community youth sports teams, basketball, hockey, baseball and soccer. While I didn’t expect to be a varsity captain or anything, I still thought that I’d at least find something I was good at, or good enough at, to go through tryouts and find my name posted up on the bulletin board outside of the gym, telling me that I’d made a team.

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But basketball was out of the question. I went to the first day of tryouts and knew immediately that it wasn’t going to happen. There were something like sixteen hundred boys in my school, and so the sheer amount of bodies in the gym that day, all of them there with their eyes on one of the sixteen spots available, it was a wake-up call, that even though I wasn’t horrible at basketball, I wasn’t really that good either.

And so the coach had us line up and shoot lay-ups, and I missed the first lay-up. I told myself, that’s all right, I’m tall, I’m fast, I’m sure they’re not too concerned with that one lay-up. But some assistant coach blew a whistle and pointed in my direction. I looked at him like, what? What do you want me to do? And he just barely lifted his eyes in my direction and blew the whistle again, this time pointing to the locker room. I’d been cut.

But hockey, I’d been playing hockey since I was in the second grade. There’s no way I wouldn’t make the ice hockey team. I mean, just think about all that it takes to get your equipment ready and have your parents take you to all of those hockey practices and hockey games and summer hockey camps. I thought, I must have an advantage over the majority of these guys.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” the ice hockey coach told me and a group of five or six other kids after the second ice hockey tryout. His first words weren’t all that encouraging, and I looked around at the others in my company, all of us scrawny, awkward, obviously inferior to everyone else still skating on the ice.

And then it was like, OK, no basketball, no hockey, what else can I do? Volleyball? The volleyball coach actually approached me, seeing as how I was so tall. I guess he had this idea that, even though I told him I’d never played volleyball before, that it was OK, that he’d train me, that by the time I made it to senior year, I’d be some sort of spiking machine.

But those tryouts too ended in the volleyball coach kind of just shaking his head from side to side, one of those, “Listen, I’m really sorry I put you through all of this,” speeches where I could tell by his lack of eye contact that he probably did actually feel a little bad about suggesting that I try out in the first place.

So what was left? Freshman year came and went and I hadn’t made it on any sports teams. Was I destined to go through high school without ever knowing the camaraderie associated with team athletics? One of my friends was on the junior varsity wrestling team and, while he laughed when I asked him if I had what it took to try out for JV, he suggested that I attend the first day of novice wrestling.

Novice wrestling was the only sport in my school that had zero cuts. It wasn’t varsity and it wasn’t junior varsity, but it was still technically a sport. And so I showed up, me and a hundred and fifty other kids that looked as if they’d also never played on any team sport in high school. Everything about novice wrestling was exactly how it sounded, novice. We had to wrestle in this small, old gym, tucked away behind the pipe-room of the main gym. I didn’t even know the school had a secondary gym. It was one of those neglected rooms that looked like it hadn’t really been considered in decades.

Our uniforms were similarly relics of a bygone era. While the varsity and the JV squad wore these modern looking spandex outfits, we each wore a very outdated crimson wrestling singlet, made of whatever fabric they used before the invention of spandex, with bright yellow piping around the neck, arm and leg openings. I looked ridiculous. I was six foot five, but only a hundred and sixty pounds, so my uniform didn’t really hug the sides of my body, it hung, loose, making my torso look like a popsicle stick.

With a hundred and fifty person team, it was unlikely that I’d actually see much action. We basically went to practice every day, and then when we had meets, the coach would give us all turns, placing us into different weight classes, maybe we’d get to grapple, maybe not.

I remember the first time I actually had a match. My opponent was about five foot one, and he made his entrance onto the wrestling mat, slapping himself in the face, making weird yelling sounds, I guess in an attempt at intimidation. I didn’t really get it, and neither did the ref, who blew his whistle immediately and penalized him for unsportsmanlike conduct.

We got into position and the ref blew his whistle again to start the match. And my opponent ran off of the mat and vomited by the edge of the gym. I just kind of stood there, not really understanding what had happened. And then the ref blew his whistle again and raised my hand in the air. I won.

The next day on morning announcements, after they showed the highlights from the basketball game, they read a list of novice wrestlers who had won their matches. I almost felt silly hearing my name called. Some of the other novice wrestlers in my homeroom laughed knowingly. But it wasn’t that bad, because another guy in my homeroom had wound up facing off against a girl wrestler. He pinned her to the ground and won, and everyone was on his case, making up an exaggerated story about how the match went down, how yeah, he won, but just barely.

Being part of a team was cool, but wrestling wasn’t really what I was after. Besides, I kept getting ringworm, and one of my teammates had to go to the hospital because his testicles got twisted around each other in the middle of a match. I did novice wrestling for a year, got my athletic letter, and then threw away my wrestling gear. But every once in a while I’ll have a dream like I’m back in high school. I’m in my adult body, and I’m just totally dominating every single sport. I’m blocking jump shots and scoring game winning goals in overtime. What are you going to do, right? You can only try so hard at sports.

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