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We circled each other warily as the match started, each knowing that the outcome was important to our own team. I shot first, with bad results. I grabbed a leg, but he sprawled, kicking his legs backwards and landing most of his weight on my back. With my face exposed, he slammed me with a vicious cross-face. I thought it was flagrant, but the referee didn’t, so I continued to struggle. I was still holding onto his leg, but he was still cross facing hard and was slowly leveraging his body behind me. My nose hurt badly from the blow I’d received but I tried to block that out. After 20 more seconds, I couldn’t hold him back any longer. He whipped behind me and earned 2 points for a takedown.
At that point I became aware that my nose, which had born the brunt of the cross face, had begun dripping blood. I looked up at the referee to show him, and he immediately called for injury time. I had only wrestled a minute, but I was already out of breath as I walked back towards the bench.
The trainer checked to make sure my nose wasn’t broken, and tried to stop the bleeding. Then, she pushed some cotton balls up my nostrils to try to contain any more blood that flowed. This, I knew from experience, would contribute to my fatigue, because it would make breathing more difficult. I tried to talk with Coach Miles as best I could, but it was difficult with the trainer checking my nose, and my heavy breathing. As all this was going on, I watched someone I didn’t recognize clean my blood off the mat with a towel and a spray bottle. I’d bled more than I had realized.
"I don’t think I can go 6 minutes with this guy," I gasped. "I’m already beat."
"You’re just not getting much air, is all," he said. It was more than that, though. I was worn out even before the cotton balls were shoved up my nose. "We need something here, Ben, just do your best. You’re better than he is," he said firmly. I wasn’t so sure.
"He’s so big. I’ll have to try to end it early, that’s the only way," I
said without bravado, still breathing hard.
I was upset with myself, and retired to the gym wall about 25 feet behind our bench. Moments like these are when a wrestler realizes that his sport is ultimately an individual one. The team score means little to the wrestler who is sitting against the back wall, brooding amongst a jumble of warm-ups, headgear and water bottles. Such despondent figures were a staple at almost every match I had ever attended or participated in, and this time it was me. I felt nothing but despair. Nick Schmidt, who had won his 17th without a loss before I wrestled, brought my sweats over to me. "You were good," he said, "just that mistake with the pick in the first. Forget it, man."
I started to explain that I hadn’t been able to find the ankle because of the
mask, but I was too out of breath to talk. He tapped me on the head and
nodded, the way one friend communicated to another without speaking. He
knew what I wanted to say. Knowing there was nothing more he could do, he
walked back to the bench. After a few minutes I put my sweats back on and
did the same.
Back in North Carolina we called the move a pancake. Here, and now, it had a different name that I hadn’t bothered to learn. I pushed down with my left arm overhook while lifting his other shoulder with my right arm underhook at the same time. The power from my planted right leg was enough to flip him straight onto his back. The referee signaled 2 points for my takedown, and dropped onto the mat to begin counting off my back points. I knew there was no need to bother. My hold was so tight that I was about to end the match.
"Judy! Why are you so angry with me?" I asked.
She whirled to face me. "I saw you and your friend in there, Ben Petrovic, so just save it, alright? You’re not what I thought you were."
"What?" I shouted in disbelief. Now it was my turn to be angry. She had no right to suddenly act as though we had some kind of exclusive relationship, after what had happened last night. "What are you talking about? You don’t care what I am anyway," I responded. "To you I’m just some jerk on the wrestling team."
She didn’t say anything as she tightened her scarf around her neck. "What were you doing today?" I demanded sarcastically. "Down at the beach with your college guy that you didn’t bother to tell me about! How do you think I felt when you had your Dad read me the riot act last night?" I was shouting right back at her now. I usually held my tongue regardless of how angry I was, but the alcohol had loosened it.
Her face changed instantly, from angry to crestfallen. It didn’t feel good to be yelled at, we were both learning. "It wasn’t like that," she said sternly. "I told you about that last night, Ben," she said. Now she wasn’t yelling, but almost pleading, and suddenly she sounded more sad than mad.
"Yeah, you told me," I said bitterly. "But only because I already knew."
"I told you," she repeated, so quietly this time that I could barely hear her
words. She was very close to tears. I wanted to wrap my arms around
her, anything to keep her from feeling sad, but I didn’t think she’d let me, and
that would be even more embarrassing. Instead, I just let her
"So Ben, how far do you plan to go with this wrestling?" Mr. Voorst asked.
I didn’t know what he meant. He could have been asking how high I could place in the states, or maybe how many more years I would participate in the sport, or maybe something else. "You mean, this year?" I asked.
"I was thinking more about what you have planned after high school," he said.
I shrugged. "I’ll just take it as it comes," I said, not really taking the question seriously.
"It?" asked Craig. I could almost see the malice in his single syllable response.
I felt my face grow hot. What were they getting at, I wondered.
Something told me that an attack was in progress. Is this the "high school
jock going nowhere" angle that Judy mentioned? I felt even more out of
place, standing there in my perspiration-stained sweats. I had to say
something, but what? "I’m not focusing on that right now," I said
simply. "Maybe after the season."
Cortez squeezed my hand hard when the referee told us to shake, and then threw my hand away. Good, I thought. I liked wrestling against guys who spent so much time and energy trying to intimidate their opponent. In most cases I found that they were less prepared once the match began. He was wasting his time trying to intimidate me, because I was far beyond that now. So was everybody else in this tournament, for that matter.
He continued with his attempts to intimidate me when the match started, by repeatedly slapping my headgear. Several times he missed slightly, making contact with my face and forehead. I kept my focus and decided to use his tactics against him. I timed his head slaps, and when I was sure I knew he was reaching for another one I reacted instantly by shooting underneath for his legs. It worked perfectly; he had set himself up better than I possible could have. Even after he knew I was coming for his legs he could do nothing, because in the same split second he had already committed himself toward lunging at my head, and he couldn’t stop his own momentum. I easily took both legs. Wanting to send a message, I pulled both of his legs in tight. From my knees I lifted him off the mat and dumped him hard onto his butt. There was still enough forward momentum that I was able to continue moving through him until he was on his back. Quickly, I moved up and inserted a reverse half nelson before he could roll away. At the same time I shifted my body so that it was perpendicular to his. When he then rolled towards me I switched my hold again, this time into a tight headlock. Ten seconds after the cocky Cortez was slapping my head and face trying to intimidate me, he was helpless on his back, in a very non-intimidating position.
Taking care to lift his head off the mat with my right arm, I used my left
arm to lift on his elbow. Slowly and carefully, so as not to disturb
the delicate balance that was working in my favor, I arched my extended body
over and across his, driving his far shoulder closer and closer to the mat. I
had always thought that as brutal as the throwing of a headlock can be, there is
something artistic about the graceful balance and precise positioning required
for maintaining it, once it has been thrown. My head was cocked towards
the ceiling and so I couldn’t see his back, but from experience I knew exactly
how quickly space was closing between his back and the mat as I leaned and
When I got to the weigh-in room, in the bowels of Boardwalk Hall, there were a few other wrestlers already there. Apparently they had the same problem I had. After stepping on the scale, they quickly dressed and left the room with worried but determined looks on their faces. The crinkling sound most of them made as they walked past me made me laugh to myself. Like me, they were resorting to the rubber suit out of desperation.
When I stepped on the scale, the news was even worse than I expected. I deliberately averted my gaze, but knew I had a serious problem just by hearing the clank of the balance bar. I was more than 3 pounds over the limit, and had about 2 hours and 45 minutes to do something about it. I didn’t put my uniform or singlet on, knowing that anything I wore would soon be soaked with perspiration. Along with the rubber suit I donned a set of thick cotton sweats. Onto my head I pulled my East Carolina knit ski cap, to trap more body heat. The room was filled with lockers, all empty. I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to use one, but I needed a place to keep my things while I worked out. I threw my gym bag into a locker, snapped my combination lock into place, and crinkled out of the room.
I figured that I would divide my time between running laps, jumping rope, and running the steps. After an hour, I was drenched with sweat but I fought the urge to rush back to the scale. It was unlikely that I had already dropped enough weight only an hour. If I stepped on the scale and was still over, I would have to put my sopping, smelly sweats back on. From experience, I knew to avoid that if at all possible. It would be best if I was done with them after the next time I took them off.
Nick and Coach Miles came in at 8:00, and saw me running laps. I cut
back across the mats to where they were standing, leaving a set of faint dusty
footprints. "I take it you were over?" Coach asked.
The weigh-in area was much more crowded than before. I squeezed through
the crowd of wrestlers, many of whom were cramming food into their mouths after
having made weight. It was hard to stay calm watching them eat, not
knowing whether or not I too would make it. From my gym bag in the locker
I pulled out my wallet, which contained the ID and paperwork I would need to
weigh in. Then I did what most other wrestlers did. I got in line
and removed clothing as I got closer to the scale. I was completely naked
by the time it was my turn. I tossed my clothes to the side, where they
landed in a wet, steaming heap, and handed my paperwork to the official.
He read the papers and set the scale accordingly. As gingerly as possible
I stepped on, as if I didn’t want the scale to know I was there. The metal
bar lurched from its resting position. In that split second I knew that I
may not be over the limit, but I was definitely not under the limit
either. The second or two seemed to be passing in slow motion. I saw
the bar slow its ascent as it approached the upper restraint. If it hit
the upper restraint, either silently or with a resounding clank, that meant that
I weighed too much. When it finally stopped, it appeared from my angle
point that it had indeed made contact, and I was overcome with gloom. It
could have been a mere fraction of a pound that I exceeded the limit by, and I
could burn that off in 10 minutes, but I felt a wave of hysteria rising in my
gut as I watched. I really needed to be done with this.
I tried not to panic. Ironically, the headlock helped me to calm
myself. Both my ears were blocked by the body and arm of my opponent, and
everything became deathly quiet. I could hear my own heart beating and I
could hear the air rushing in and out of my lungs. Somehow that was
By then Coach had spotted us, and wandered over. "How’s he feeling?" he asked me when Nick moved away to practice his shots alone.
"Seems a little nervous," I said. "He says this kid beat him last summer," I added.
"Yeah, he mentioned that to me too," Coach said.
"He’s been this far twice before, right Coach?" I asked.
"Yeah, when he was a freshman and again last year," Coach told me.
"We’ve got to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Being turned back in the semis, I mean," I said.
"Tell him," Coach said. "If he’s moping about facing this kid, he probably needs a kick in the butt like that. We’ll regret not pushing him if he loses."
That was exactly what I was thinking but there was a fine line between motivating him and annoying him by reminding him of past failures. He did seem a bit down, and I thought it was worth a shot. I ambled over and sat down next to where he was again stretching his leg muscles. "You’ve already been this far before, don’t let this kid end it for you," I told him. I was apprehensive about how receptive he would be, but I continued. "If you don’t win this one, you might as well have stayed home." That was a risky thing to say but I thought he needed it.
"Good work, Ben," Coach said approvingly after we were out of earshot of
Nick. Apparently he’d heard every word. "You’re the kind of teammate
he never had. I think you’re the difference for him this year."
Was that the satisfaction that I had been searching for since I’d thrown that match away in the regional tournament 2 years ago? I’d always thought that whatever peace I needed could only be found on the mat. Since then, especially during this season, I had been determined to win in an effort to drive away the memories that haunted me. That had been all I cared about. Now, that burning feeling was gone. It wasn’t that I didn’t care at all how today’s matches turned out. I wanted to win. I knew, though, that I would finish no lower than 6th in the state and that seemed to be enough. I was upset with myself because of this new complacency, but I couldn’t deny that it was how I truly felt.
After over 30 matches since the season began, I finally had one that I was ashamed of. Not because I didn’t win, not even because I was pinned, but because I wasn’t sure if I had tried hard enough or not. I had been intimidated even before the match began. That was something that I had vowed not to let happen anymore. When Strothmann put me in the can-opener and began to put the hurt on me, I had to admit to myself that I had folded quickly. Wasn’t that how I got into this mess in the first place, giving up in a match when the going got tough? I had a disturbing revelation as I climbed to my feet after the pin. The relief that the match was over outweighed the disappointment of losing. I had lost my edge.
There was one thing that I did know. I had accomplished my mission and
there really wasn’t any reason to stay. Suddenly I had everything I had
craved, and even something I hadn’t craved. Besides Judy, I had reached
the place in wrestling that I ached for. The result was a letdown; a
complacency that I now believed was the reason for my horrible performance on
the mat today. All season long I wrestled with a burning passion because
of what I yearned for. Now that I had achieved my goal, that passion was
gone. I knew that if I came back next year, I would wrestle the way I did
today instead of the way I wrestled all season.