Heath Grimm was ready to go last Thursday.
“We’re wrestlers,” the Upper Iowa coach said. “We’re pretty good at scrambling.”
Grimm had just come out of a coaches meeting is Sioux Falls, S.D., on the eve of the NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships. At the time, the national championship was a go and Grimm was excited.
“If we get this started ... let’s just keep going,” he said.
That attitude, that philosophy is what sets wrestlers apart from other athletes. It’s why I enjoyed covering the sport for more than 20 years and still keep a close eye on it.
The announcement last week that the NCAA was shutting down all winter and spring championships — including the D-I, D-II and D-III wrestling tournaments — was a blow. It, of course, was the right decision.
It is better to be proactive than reactive when dealing with something as sinister as the coronavirus pandemic.
All athletes took it hard. Championship season is what every athlete dreams about and the possibilities during this “second season” are what makes sports so special. It’s why everybody loves the Cinderella of the NCAA basketball tournament. It’s why a wrestler with a .500 record can get hot and earn All-America stature.
One of the first things I read after the NCAA announcement came from Tom Ryan, a former Iowa wrestler who has turned Ohio State into a perennial contender.
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“Today was one of my toughest days as a coach,” he wrote on Facebook. “Our staff had to tell some amazing men that their season was over just 6 days before the NCAA Tournament. A few were seniors. A few were up and coming underclassmen. One was a frosh trying to make history and become our 4th freshman champ. Their hearts were torn out. Two seniors ranked #1 had poured their life into becoming an NCAA Champion. This end was unimaginable.
“The Coronavirus came fast and hard. I have learned in life that the things that are most impactful are the things that touch us personally. This one touched us. No one knows what it feels like to have a title shot taken away except someone who had a shot. I watched these men battle day in and day out. They gave so much. They sacrificed the painless things for the painful things. They did this every time.
“Sometimes life just sucks. In the same context no one knows what it’s like to watch a loved one suffer from a virus except one who is. In the end, we have to simply trust those who are making these decisions. I am proud of this team and these men. They are gladiators, but more importantly they are good men. God is always good.”
This is from a man who has been part of NCAA championship teams, who has directed a team to a national title. This is man whose son died in 2004 at the age of 5.
Losing a championship season “sucks,” but this is man who can put things in perspective.
It’s not always about the pins, the nearfall points and takedowns. It’s about the people who compete. It’s about why they compete, the drive that keeps them going when many — most — would take a knee.
Wrestlers aren’t alone in this understanding. Football players, basketball players and those who run, jump and throw get it, too. Wrestlers just seem to have a way of putting things into words, usually unfiltered and with a passion you don’t always see from athletes in the “major” sports.
Championships will be held once again, sooner than later. We’ll get to see Spencer Lee wrestle again — and it needs to come with an option of another season tacked on by the NCAA. We’ll see basketball players take the court again, runners make left turns on oval tracks and tennis players make our heads spin with blazing serves.
Ryan is right. Sometimes life really does suck. But sometimes that makes us stronger, too.
I’m not surprised a wrestler so eloquently reminded me of that.
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Wrestlers are definitely best when they scramble, as Grimm pointed out. Especially when they come out on top.
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