‘He was beat by a girl a few weeks ago,” a woman whispered. She referred to her son’s downcast teammate. She and her mother sat five rows from her eleven-year-old who now shook his hands on the auditorium floor, trying to loosen the nerves and command their retreat. He hopped a rhythmic dance, his energies flowing outward, quieting the vision in his head.
The infants are plucked from bassinets in the corn rows at the edge of dreams. The snatches are quick. In gymnasiums, the babies are cradled as they watch their four-year-old brothers crouch. They listen to the referees’ whistles blare and watch their brothers drive the opponent across the mat. Iowa wrestling begins here. It ends in the Olympiad, in world events that test these lessons of childhood, set in small town Iowa.
Soon after he toddles, after the balancing acts and finally the increased surety, the child wrestler begins to grapple. The weights of the dream will be companions, historical matches his lullabies. The goal is to learn. It is a learning about spirit and self.
In the parking lot at the Pizza Hut Classic, pickup trucks park in the fresh snow, the dirty ice falls from wheel wells. ‘Sportsmen for NRA’ and ‘FFA’ splash the bumpers across a white horizon.
The high school trophy case includes past champions and ads announcing, ‘Purebred Chester Whites.’ At the entrance to the auditorium in Dewitt, a burly grandfather leans on a cane, down on a knee, his seven-year-old grandson, a purple Mohawk cropped tight to his angelic forehead, rapt upon the old man’s advice. The four-year olds have begun. The crowd stares at the polliwogs, fresh from unbalanced toddling, hopping and jumping at each other, going for the dive to pin.
Later, the whispering woman added, “The girl’s father told me she was a state champ.”
Her son was turning inward, checking his courage and will to win.
On the edges of the mats six-year olds dance and shake their hands, lay prone to the floor and count pushups. Cameras stare into the eyes of the children as they touch a near religious focus. The size of each heart will begin its time upon a scale. Boys will run away with tears, others will raise their hands to glory. Ghosts of Cael Sanderson and Dan Gable stand on a periphery.
During his first match he pinned his opponent. His mother raised her fist. “Go go go!”
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Before the second match the two women obsessed about the boy. They decided to leave the auditorium, bought pizza and made small talk. They brushed away the tension.
In the second match the boy came like a whirlwind. In ten seconds he had another pin! One more match and he’d carry the trophy home along with his redemption.
The tournament was three hours old.
No one can promise winners their victories. The great Dan Gable once stenciled X on jerseys before a tenth championship. It was not meant to be. Even the best can fall.
In his last match, the eleven-year-old looked squarely into his opponent’s eyes. He gritted his teeth. He went hand to hand. Rounding the mat he fought for position. Then as desire squared it, he pinned his opponent. He’d found the stuff of champions.
At the start, he had smiled but his smile had faded to determination. He’d stood on the mat and looked within. He’d looked into the distance, perhaps seeing other matches. On the high school mat in Dewitt, Iowa, this is what he will remember. A vision of Socrates, the most important lesson is about yourself.
• Tim Trenkle is a freelance writer who teaches at Northeast Iowa Community College.