Wrestling is an exclusive sport. Those who know it, love it. Those who are less familiar often have trouble understanding the ways of the singlet-clad crowd.
Sometimes folks don't get how points are scored in a match, struggling to grasp which wrestler has the upper hand in a mangled nest of limbs. Maybe they're confused by the simultaneous nature of the sport's individual and team aspects. And a stereotypical question persists: What's with starving yourself to cut weight?
As a former high school wrestler, I get it. As soon as I walked into the Del Norte High School gym filled with sweat and grit for the 2012 Battle at the Border on Saturday, I was catapulted back to my own tournament experiences.
It starts with a long bus ride, where many tired teens grab a nap and wrestlers cutting weight try to keep their mind off food.South Umpqua High School wrestlers, Saturday's most far-flung competitors, drove more than three hours from Myrtle Creek, Ore.
Then comes weigh-ins. Wrestlers are shuffled like cattle to step on a scale, sometimesnaked if they cannot afford the underwear's extra ounces. The perception of unhealthy weight-cutting practices is often more fiction than reality, and today's regulations prevent the wrong type of cutting weight.
Wrestlers receive a body-fat analysis at the beginning of the season to determine the lowest weight class they can reach while keeping body fat percentages at a healthy level. Additionally, wrestlers must take a hydration test during weigh-ins proving they are drinking enough water. At least a few wrestlers on Saturday were bumped up a weight class after failing their test.
After weigh-ins, coaches hold a seeding meeting, adjusting brackets for wrestlers who didn't make weight or teams that didn't show. Three teams expected to attend sat out the Battle at the Border due to the extreme weather.
Wrestlers spend the time before the first round of matches in myriad ways as varied as the grapplers themselves. They practice moves, gorge on food, take another nap, jump rope, jog and/or listen to adrenaline-pumping music.
When the first whistle is blown signaling the start of the tournament, the wrestlers' pre-match efforts are put to the test, and each individual must own up to the results.
Despite the team accumulation of points, the individual element takes precedence. If wrestlers lose a match, they have no one to blame but themselves.
Despite the fact that only four athletes are competing in each gym at a time, with two matches per gym, the room's intensity stays high. Coaches shout at their wrestlers and sometimes referees, and parents coach sons and daughters from the bleachers: "Take a shot! Take a shot! Re-shoot!" Whistles, buzzers, sweat and blood round out the mayhem.
A wrestler jumped rope outside the exit door to the main gym while paramedics hurried passed him to retrieve a wrestler who had just fractured his arm from trying to break his fall.
"He picked him up really high and slammed him on the ground," said Ryan Beairsto, a freshman from North Valley High School in Grants Pass, who witnessed the injury of Dillon Schnee of Grants Pass High School. "He had his arm completely straight out, and it snapped in.He started breathing heavy like he just had the wind knocked out of him, and he started hyperventilating."
Many ringside audience members said they heard the snap of Schnee's arm break.
Two wrestlers took ambulance rides to Sutter Coast on Saturday.
After losing a close, hard-fought match, one wrestler collapsed to the gym's floor boards as soon as he stepped off the mat.While lying on his back to catch a breath, you could see his bloody gums.
DN's family affair
Like many sports, wrestling produces wrestling families, and in Del Norte, the Schaads arethewrestling family.
Practices run by head coach Aaron Schaad and his brother, assistant coach Clinton Schaad, were referred to by one wrestler as "the Schaad house of pain."
These two brothers honed their wrestling skills at Del Norte High and Southern Oregon University in Ashland, where each was a member of a separate national title-claiming team.
Their father, Chuck Schaad, got his boys into wrestling and was the coach of Del Norte youth wrestling teams. Chuck and his son, Heath Schaad, who also wrestled in high school, are still a presence at the tournament by selling T-shirts that help fund the team.
The mother of the clan, Patty Schaad, was in charge of keeping the coaches' room stocked with food.
Another prominent wrestling family for Del Norte is formed by siblings Hawk, Hunter and Nicole Mattz.
All three have been wrestling since they were very young, with Nicole starting at age 5. As one of only a handful of girls at Saturday's tournament, she's often asked what it's like to participate in a male-dominated sport.It's a question that Nicole gets sick of hearing.
"We're just all wrestlers - it's not about guys and girls," she said.
Her intensity on the mat proves her point.
The Mattz siblings, along with Robert Boulby, Jackson Evans (step-son of Aaron Schaad), and Eric Turner have all been wrestling together for at least five years, forming another family of sorts on the team.
A good place to start
Del Norte's Battle of the Border usually offers teams their first matches of the season.
"Del Norte's a good tournament to start with," said Ted Hall, assistant coach for Illinois Valley High School in Cave Junction.Saturday marked Hall's 17th year coaching in the Del Norte tournament, which is also where he coached for the very first time.
Hall told his wrestlers he would shave his scraggly, gray beard if they take the Oregon state title this year.
"They're all giving me a bad time today about it, saying 'Coach, you're shaving this year!' So I hope I do.We're ranked second in state this year," Hall said.Illinois Valley crushed the competition Saturday, taking home the team title.
Del Norte has a young team this year with only two seniors, both of whom had their first official matches Saturday.
"They're both pretty good athletes. They're gonna work out for us," said Aaron Schaad after watching first-year senior Ryan Gomes pin his first opponent in the first period. "That's the first match of his life."
Reach Adam Spencer at firstname.lastname@example.org.