Wrestling fans grappling with the future

IOC's decision can't dampen enthusiasm for sport of wrestling

By Paul Valencia, Columbian high school sports reporter

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TACOMA — Mat Classic begins with 1,200 athletes under one dome, with two days of competition in front of coaches, cheerleaders, parents, and friends.

It is almost non-stop action until one athlete remains in each weight, each classification.

In all, 82 individual champions are crowned in Washington's annual celebration of wrestling.

Prior to the championship matches, the medalists, officials and other guests march in to salute the fans. "America the Beautiful" is played over the public address system.

Emotions run high during this spectacle, a ceremony unmatched by other Washington Interscholastic Activities Association events.

It is doubtful one could find a person in the Tacoma Dome who agrees with the International Olympic Committee's decision last week to dispatch wrestling from the Olympic Games.

However, at least one former champion and Clark County assistant coach with longtime ties to USA Wrestling sees something magical happening since the IOC made its announcement.

"My initial reaction was deep, deep sadness," said Dan Russell, an assistant with the Battle Ground wrestling program. "My other reaction is it's the greatest thing to happen in the sport of wrestling. Look at what's happened since the decision has been made. People all over the world are saying they can't believe this."

For example, the United States and Iran — not exactly the closest of friends — are teaming up to help save the sport in the Olympics. As of today, wrestling will be part of the 2016 Games in Brazil but is off the schedule for 2020 and beyond. Unless there is a change of heart at the IOC.

In the past two decades, wrestling has seen its share of setbacks, with several colleges shutting down their programs.

And now the Olympics.

The sport is far from dead, though.

"I think it's going to be saved," said Evergreen senior Anthony Thomas, who finished second at state in his class on Saturday. "It's Russia's Super Bowl. You can't take away their Super Bowl. It's what they do."

It is what a lot of countries do, in fact.

Russell was a four-time Oregon champion at Gresham High School, and then he won four NCAA Division II titles at Portland State. A two-time Olympic alternate, Russell has been with the U.S. national coaching staff since 1996. In short, he is an expert.

He said 180 countries participate in international wrestling, a number confirmed by a New York Times article last week. There were 71 nations represented in London, and 29 nations earned at least one medal at the 2012 Games.

Russell said the IOC is forgetting the principles upon which the Olympics were founded.

"Running, throwing, wrestling are at the heart of the Olympic movement because everyone on the planet can participate," Russell said.

It is that purity, the one-on-one competition, that will save the sport, Russell believes.

"It's my skill versus his skill. It's mutual respect and honor," he said.

Plus, the sport is relatively inexpensive. Wrestling only needs dedicated coaches and athletes to thrive.

The sport appears to have those.

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations data, about 1,000 more boys are wrestling in Washington high schools in 2012 than in 2008. There were 122 girls wrestling in the state in 2008. It was more than 1,000 last year. In all, more than 9,400 Washington high school students competed in wrestling last year.

Nationally, the sport is growing, too. In 2008, there were 259,000 boys wrestling. Last year, the number was up to 272,000. And girls are competing at higher levels than ever recorded.

So while the Olympics are dismissing wrestling, high school associations are very much committed to the sport.

"This is a testimony that amateur wrestling is alive and well in the state of Washington," said Mike Colbrese, the executive director of the WIAA, as he took a look around the Tacoma Dome just prior to Saturday's finals. "With the number of kids participating, it's stronger than ever. The sport is strong. People are uniting for the sport."

Still, it has been a tough last 20 or so years.

The Pacific-12 Conference only has six wrestling programs, and three of them — Boise State, Cal Poly, and Cal State Bakersfield — are not part of the Pac-12 in the power sports.

Now, the Olympics have counted out wrestling.

Still, as Russell said, this could be the turning point. Now that the IOC has taken this shot against wrestling, wrestling is making a counter-attack.

"Even our basketball players are kind of upset about it," Thomas said of his classmates at Evergreen.

Exactly what Russell figured would happen. He said he has heard national media members talk about the injustice, guys who rarely follow wrestling.

Russell smiles when asked one more time to elaborate on the IOC's decision.

"You want to know what I think? I'll tell you what I think," he said. "Wrestling does not need the Olympics. The Olympics need wrestling. That's going to be very clear."