We rarely achieve perfection in anything: sport, love, business, art, life. But I did once. In wrestling for Bellevue High School, of all things.
I was fairly athletic, excelling in track and decent in soccer. And later achieved some success at table tennis on a national level. But would never be able to dream of anything close to perfection in those sports. Thankfully.
Note that I said perfection in wrestling, not perfect excellence.
Here’s the story:
I was a talented freshman, but had never officially wrestled before. I earned my way on to the varsity squad through determination and luck. Practices were brutal, three-hour affairs, enduring medieval-spirited exercises and endless grappling drills under 1966 national champion Coach Landers.
And then came the painful part.
My very first match was against a seasoned senior, the previous year’s Washington State third place winner. “Huh, he doesn’t look that special,” I thought as we lined up at the pre-match weigh-in. 38 seconds into the first two-minute round he had me pretzeled into some sadistic hold, and I could hear and feel his home-gym crowd chanting louder and louder: “pin, pin, pin!” They’ve seen this act before, I thought, and felt my resolve draining away, very publicly, in the middle of that big, sweaty gladiator’s circle on the mat in the main gym. Hot with losing effort and humiliation (how could 38 seconds be so exhausting?), I could feel the glare of disappointment from my teammates who had hoped for bigger things from the new guy.
After matches we ‘d get cookies and red sugary punch supplied by the cheerleaders. We’d mingle with the other team’s wrestlers, a tradition within a loose fraternity of warriors that I had not yet really joined. My opponent was a true sportsman, and told me he’d show me how to escape that vice-like hold he’d got me in to win it. “But you’ve got to put down the cookie and punch,” he told me, and I realized I didn’t look too enthusiastic to practice more wrestling at that precise moment, content to self-soothe with an over-baked chocolate chip cookie.
But we went over some holds and escapes, and I tried to remember at least the escape from that one hold he got me in so I’d never get pinned by it again. As far as I remember, I never had a chance to use it again. But I’ll always remember his gesture, and how cool it felt for the state’s number three wrestler, a senior at a rival school, to take some time with a floppy freshman to show me some tricks of the trade.
The season marched on. More matches, harder practices, stern lectures from Coach. I saw progress in my wrestling: I was reacting better, using tactics, applying holds; but still... zero wins.
Finally, the end of the season, and the Regional Jamboree. This was a day-long wrestle-fest with many schools from the farmlands, and glory for the most durable and tenacious in each weight class at the end of the day. This was my chance to break through, I thought. I can’t remain the only winless wonder.
Seeded extremely low, I lost my opening round, of course. But it wasn’t single elimination. My teammates had shining moments we all cheered. As I progressed through the day, my losses piled up, and doubt set in. For my last match, I would face another relative newcomer, almost as inexperienced as myself. Rounds 1 and 2 were a see-saw battle, and I gave it everything I had left. In the third and final period, score tied with one minute left, I had him in a cradle hold. I glanced at my coach for instructions as we often did. I saw a rare glimmer in his eye and almost a smile in his perpetually tight lips. “Just hold him there, Bookey – you got him.” It felt great to hear reassurance from the coach, even as I felt my opponent squirming, breaking free…
Somewhere out there, an elite few wrestlers can revel in the amazing memory of an entire undefeated season, all the way through to a state or national championship. I’ll never know that feeling. But this wrestling season taught me lessons that endured longer than in any of my other sports – or most of my other high school experiences.
In our official team picture toward the end of the season, it’s telling that I was the only one smiling. It’s easy to pick me out (sure, the dorky hair, but let’s focus on the dorky smile). Scowling wasn’t my style. Still, I’d like to think that maybe I smiled because I knew I was achieving something truly unique on that team. Perfection.
Wherever you are, Coach Landers, please know that I while I did not achieve actual wrestling success – quite the opposite – those few 100- or 200-meter track races I won left me with a vague sense of pride and that’s about it. But look at that dorky smiling kid in the wrestling team pic. That kid who survived the most intense workouts he’d ever been subject to, who walked on and won a place on the varsity team having never officially “wrestled” a single day in his life, who stayed on the team even as he’d fall asleep while doing his math homework every night, waking up the next day sore but increasingly bulked up and resolved. I learned that I could handle something like that, something trying, heart-rending, humiliating at times. Somehow I emerged with a survivor’s sense of accomplishment, and as an added bonus, the ability to laugh about it.
I’ve experienced some rewarding wins and plenty of wrenching losses. And like my wise table tennis coach says, you learn more from your losses than your victories. I have definitely learned the truth in that.
That last match? The damn kid wriggled out of my exhausted hold just in time and won the match by a single escape point. I wanted that win so badly at the time, seeing it as a type of redemption. But now, I realize it would have cost me something even more rare.
1-10 is just a sad season. But 0-11? Epic.