Referee Lee Lofton never anticipated wearing sunglasses to officiate a wrestling match.
Camas junior Porter Craig never expected to show up at Doc Harris Stadium in a singlet.
Woodland coach Brandon Pilot never thought he would administer COVID-19 tests to athletes entering the mat room.
Alas, this is what high school wrestling in Washington state looks like in a pandemic.
Local grapplers returned to the mats for the first time in more than a year this week. It was anything but normal.
Wrestling is the only sport that the Washington Department of Health requires all athletes to take regular COVID tests. The mandate left administrators, coaches and athletes frustrated and seeking answers for why their sport is being singled out. Many in the wrestling community said they were being “unfairly targeted.”
“There’s no question about that,” Heritage athletic director and wrestling coach Erik Gonzalez said. “It all came down to the optics.”
The DOH mandate of testing sent administrators scrambling to figure out how to receive, administer and track the tests. Competition in the 4A/3A Greater St. Helens League season was delayed by a month. Many were worried they wouldn’t get a chance to compete at all.
“In terms of fairness, I think they should have more compassion for us,” Craig said.
The WIAA is required to follow DOH mandates because they fall under the community sports guidelines, executive director Mick Hoffman said. When the WIAA pushed back on the testing mandate, the DOH said the “intimacy of the sport” and “extreme close contact” were the reasons behind the requirement.
The WIAA office presented the DOH with data from other states, specifically Pennsylvania, that the average time spent in close contact for wrestlers was 4 minutes. The Center for Disease Control defines “close contact” as someone who spends 15 minutes or more within six feet of a person.
“I don’t know that we’re getting a fair shake,” Kelso coach Bobby Freund said. “We’re looking at optics and not looking at science.”
Testing and protocols
All wrestlers are required to test at least twice a week, including any match day.
The WIAA partnered with the Health Commons Project to provide rapid antigen-type tests to schools free of charge. Each school had to submit a Clinical Lab Improvement Amendment to the DOH to become trained to administer testing, Woodland athletic director Paul Huddleston said.
At Woodland, Huddleston and two wrestling coaches are capable of administering testing. In Kelso, school nurses are administering tests. At Heritage, the athletic trainer alongside coaches will be in charge of the tests, which give a result in 15 minutes following a nasal swab. Battle Ground will have athletes swab their own nose in front of coaches who are trained in the process.
How to proceed after a positive test also varies wildly between districts around the state.
“This is where things start to get interpreted differently,” Freund said.
Some districts mandate a seven-day quarantine after a positive test with contact tracing done for close contacts. Other districts require a minimum of 14 days. Fully vaccinated students do not have to quarantine after a close contact, Huddleston said.
“I think our administrations in the GSHL made a great effort to get things up and going,” Freund said. “They took cautious measures, which I understand and respect.”
Referees don’t have any testing protocols or vaccine requirement, said Lofton, who has officiated for five years. Officials try to keep their distance, wear masks at all times and avoid showing up at a match if they have any symptoms, Lofton added.
While frustrations mounted in the wrestling community as the start was delayed, administrators found a unique opportunity for wrestlers to experience a “big stage” experience once competition started.
Hudson’s Bay and Seton Catholic both hosted outdoor dual meets on Wednesday. The matches were among the first high school duals to be held outside in Washington state history.
“It’s very neat,” said Pilot, whose Beavers competed with Ridgefield and Hudson’s Bay on Wednesday under a setting sun. “With us having to wait to wrestle for so long, I’m just glad we had the opportunity to do it.”
The 4A/3A Greater St. Helens League will hold two eight-team outdoor events at Doc Harris Stadium, the first coming on Saturday. Prairie wrestling will not compete this season after a positive COVID test this week, district spokesperson Rita Sanders said.
The 2A GSHL is also considering holding its league championships outdoors. Outdoor events allow for more social distancing and a larger number of fans.
“I’m stoked,” Mountain View state champion Noah Messman said. “Last year when quarantine first started, we wrestled outside at my house. We’d throw a mat in the front yard. … It’s just a blessing we get to wrestle at all.”
With little or no postseason this year — the 4A/3A GSHL will not have a league championship meet — wrestlers are focusing on just having fun. For those who can return next year, it’s also a chance to improve.
“The outcomes of the matches this year don’t matter,” said Craig, a junior. “It’s a great year to get better.”
The effects this delayed and complicated season have on the sport may persist into future years, Freund fears.
With no middle school wrestling, a combined season for the 4A/3A GSHL and no postseason to strive toward, turnout is down across the board for area schools.
“Our numbers are half of what they were,” Messman said.
Some students chose to get a job, others chose to compete in a different sport, Freund said. The ones who stuck around are the ones who just love to wrestle, Messman said.
If kids aren’t getting experience on the mats in middle school and early in their prep careers, the hurdles they’ll face once wrestling returns to some semblance of normal is going to be massive, Craig said.
For a sport whose numbers have declined in the past decade, there’s genuine concern how big an impact this might have on the smaller but passionate community.
“I don’t know how long it takes to recover,” Freund said. “Do you ever recover from it?”