Grade-school grappling

Park league wrestling engages kids from kindergarten to high school — and their parents

Leif Conway came to Minneapolis Park Board wrestling by default. The Burroughs 3rd-grader didn’t want to play hockey because the skates hurt his feet, and he didn’t want to play basketball, either. When his buddy decided to join the wrestling team at Lynnhurst Park, he signed up, too.

At first, Leif’s mother Jane Conway thought wrestling was a weird sport. "I just didn’t get any of it," Conway said. "I’m still not sure how they score points, but it does seem like something natural for little boys to do."

She recalled, "Following his first victory, his opponent started to cry and Leif felt so bad that he almost started crying, too. He didn’t feel good about winning. But he did go up to the boy after the match to try and make him feel better."

Asked how it feels to go out on the mat and grapple with a kid he doesn’t know, Leif confessed, "It feels just like being embarrassed" — understandable, since often over 100 people watch.

Still, Leif has won five of his first seven matches, and he thinks wrestling is something he might stick with.

Tangletown resident Suzanne Rhees echoed similar sentiments. "I don’t really pretend to understand what’s going on yet," said Rhees, whose son Alex is a 6th-grader at Field. "It’s an interesting situation because when he is wrestling I want to say something positive but I never know what to say. I am still inching my way up the learning curve."

Though the moms sometimes don’t entirely get the sport of wrestling, dads do. Joe Burns and Paul Porter coach Southwest High School’s varsity team and the Park Board’s SWAC team. For them, wrestling has become a father-son sport. Joey Burns and Christian Porter, Lake Harriet kindergarteners, both wrestle for their dads’ team.

"It’s about playing by the rules, dedicating yourself to practice and improving skills," said Burns. "You learn the value of hard work and discipline. It’s also about controlling yourself and being aggressive towards your opponent at the same time. What happens on the mat stays on the mat and when the match is over, you are friends again."

"There’s a small but tight community of people who value wrestling," said Porter. "At this level most kids don’t really care if they win or lose; they just want to have fun."

Park league

There are currently 12 teams in the Minneapolis Park Board Wrestling League, involving over 200 6- to 14-year-olds. Southwest teams include SWAC, Lynnhurst and Bryant Square. There are also teams from Powderhorn Park, the Phillips neighborhood and several from Northeast and the North Side.

Parents rarely sit in the bleachers when their kids are engaged in a contest. Most can be found nervously watching at the edge of the mat. While they might get loud supporting their kid’s battle, hard feelings rarely follow the results because it’s a fair fight. Matches are officiated by a referee, and kids wrestle other kids their age and weight.

Wrestling is not like karate with its ominous kicks and chops that take years to master. In wrestling, you grab your opponent, push your body against his, using your strength, wits and leverage against him. It can also be a confidence builder. Grapplers agree that once you learn the art of wrestling, bullies in the schoolyard are no longer an issue.

There is a recognized set of moves and tactics such as the double leg take-down, the switch, a cross face, the half Nelson and double trouble. Each match ends with the victor pinning his opponent’s shoulders to the mat or winning on points at the end of the three 1-minute periods. You are awarded two points for a takedown, two for a reversal, three for a near pin and one point for an escape.

A consuming sport

When December comes, the sport takes over Jim Waggoner’s life. The Tangletown resident has coached the Lynnhurst Park Board team for 15 years and the Washburn High School varsity team for 10. His son, Justin, a 1999 graduate, holds the Washburn High School record for the most wins at 116. His younger son, Brooks, is currently co-captain of the Washburn varsity squad.

"Wrestling is our life in the winter," Waggoner said. "If there is something else going on, it better be pretty important if it is going to get done."

Waggoner finds teaching the sport to young kids and watching them stay with it through high school and, in many cases, into college, rewarding. But he laments that in Minneapolis there is no junior high program like they have in the suburbs.

What makes a good wrestler?

"It’s funny, but you can’t tell by looking or talking to kid if he is going to be a good wrestler," Waggoner said. "Kids will surprise you. The mental aspect is such a big part of wrestling. Obviously, you want some physical attributes, but mental toughness is what puts the better wrestlers on top and helps them stay on top."

Coaches say the notion of personal responsibility is a big part of the sport. There is no goalie to blame for letting the ball into the net, no outfielder to blame for dropping a fly ball or guard to blame for missing a basket at the free throw line. When wrestlers go out on the mat to fight, it’s one on one.

East Harriet resident Mike DeVetter helps Waggoner coach the Lynnhurst team that includes his son, Nick. A Tracy, Minn. native, DeVetter said, in his hometown, wrestling was a sport whole families were involved in. He wrestled, as did his uncles and his cousins.

"It’s not as glamorous as basketball, but once you start, it gets in your blood. It’s different from team sports in that if you have a bad game, your team can still win because your buddies can compensate. But in wrestling, it’s all you."

Sam Simondet, an 8th-grader at Anwatin Junior High, has wrestled for eight years. He plans to attend Washburn next year and wrestle for Waggoner. His uncle Steve Simondet, former North High wrestling coach, won 103 matches for Washburn in his early years.

"At first it was scary to go out and fight guys," Simondet said "But now it isn’t so bad. Winning feels pretty good, but losing doesn’t feel so good."

At the end of the match the referee will raise the winner’s hand in the air. Decorum then compels each to shake the hand of his opponent and his coach as well.

"Shaking the hand of your opponent and his coach is a tradition in Minneapolis and is something we do as part of the culture here," said Porter. "I think it’s a great thing to do in that it shows respect–win, lose or draw."

DeVetter said wrestling has helped his son in other sports as well. "Nick also plays soccer, and its helped him in that he is not intimidated by physical contact on the soccer field."

The 2004 Minneapolis Park Board league culminates in a citywide tournament to determine city champions in each age and weight class. It begins Feb. 23 until Feb. 26 at Richard R. Green Central Park School’s central gym at 3416 4th

Ave. S.