I have far more memories of sports than any of my classes, or anything else in school. I excelled probably the most in wrestling, but I also went out for track, cross country, and football.
I’ll start with wrestling. I already had a taste for wrestling since I wrestled with my brother Mark very early in life; and I also wrestled some in seventh grade, but I didn’t do too well so I think I was eager to improve. In my sophomore year at West, right away I was pretty good—better than any other sophomore in my weight class. But I was not better than anyone on the varsity squad, so all year I was stuck on the B-squad. I ended up winning all my B-squad matches either by a wide margin or by a pin. It felt good.
In the next couple of years, I also was pretty good, but I did lose a few matches. And in my senior year at finals I didn’t go far at all. Those guys seemed to be so much stronger than any of the guys I wrestled in our conference. Here I thought I was so good, but all along I was deceived. I wished then, after my humiliating loss, that I had better competition and better training. But I couldn’t do anything about it; the season was over.
Aside from the memories I have of wins and losses at the meets, there were also many other things I remember about my time in wrestling at West. Wrestling practice took up a lot of time, three hours every day after school. Too long! It was brutal. Everyone always lost about 5 pounds of sweat in just one practice—and then gained it all back for the next day. I always wore two or three layers of sweat clothes and sometimes a plastic suit just to lose more weight. Some guys hated practice, others seemed to excel in it and even smiled while they worked out—like out team captain Halonen. He was good. A great wrestler. And he really took us to the limit in practice; I mean to the point where we thought we were gonna die. We did our regular calisthenics; we ran around the school hallways; and then we wrestled each other. We also had a slower time when the coach would talk to us and show us wrestling moves and techniques. That was our learning time and also the time when we could sort of rest and catch our breath.
But I the most beneficial and lasting thing about wrestling was the friendships I made, and also the whole concept of the benefit of work and practice—that the more you really work at something, the more you will achieve the goal you set for yourself. I think that had a lot to do with our coach, coach Skavnak. He knew that in order to win we had to really work at it and to build our strength and endurance in practice. I learned that lesson well in wrestling.
I also went out for track. And I think it was coach Skavnak that encouraged me, because he was also one of the track coaches. The thing I liked best about track was the whole environment. I just loved watching all the different events going on at the same time: the high jump, the long jump, the pole vault, the discuss and the shotput throw; and then all the running events: the 100 yard dash, the 220, the 440, the 880, and the mile run, and the low hurdles and the high hurdles. It was all so grand. And I wanted to do everything! As much as I could.
But I remember clearly when coach Skavnak took me aside and said to me that I should concentrate on just one or a couple events and be good at those. He said that I was like the guy who was a jack of all trades but a master of none. So, I got his point. The coach wanted me to run the 880 (yards, or one-half mile) and also to try the discus throw. Well, I had some trouble with my shoulder, so I knew I wouldn’t be good at the discus—and I wasn’t. But I think I did fairly well at the 880, though it was hard. I mean it was grueling, but I was up for the task. Wrestling practice I think had built into me a strong work ethic and so I was prepared to put the work into it.
Looking back at it, I think I did have a good work ethic and good practices. But I’m not sure I had the best body type for being a runner. It takes both. If you look at the best runners, they all have the same body types. They are all strong but also slender. A guy who has a wrestler’s body (more like mine), wouldn’t be that good as a runner.
But I tried my best and I think I did pretty good. At the meets I always placed near the top. As I remember, most of the time I took second place. It was so frustrating not to be able to win the race. But like I said, I just didn’t have the body type. That’s my excuse anyway.
I also went out for cross country and football. I really liked football and was looking forward to it, but because of all the contact and shoulder injuries (bursitis and pinched nerves) I was forced to quit early. That was disappointing.
Cross country also went bad. I just wasn’t built for those very long runs. I could run around Lake of the Isles, which was about 2 ½ miles, but they wanted you to run twice that far. That wasn’t for me. I just didn’t have the body for it. Some guys have no trouble at all running long distances. God has given them that gift.