What do you expect wrestlers to gain by participating in a summer wrestling camp?
At 3:29 a.m. on a Monday morning this summer, Major Decision Wrestling Club (MDWC) wrestlers and coaches hit the road from St. Louis to participate in the Session 6 Wrestling Camp held in Brooklyn, Iowa. The camp was great and exceeded our expectations. This wrestling event provided the opportunity for something beautiful to occur that was simple but had a profound effect on wrestlers from completely different walks of life.
MDWC was founded in 2008 to give young people from my hometown of Ferguson, Missouri and neighboring communities in the St. Louis area access to affordable high-quality wrestling training facilitated by positive role models from similar backgrounds. The program grew into a vessel of mentoring, community service, life skills development and many other things that benefit our youth. The life experiences of our members vary in description but are consistent in terms of difficulty and struggle. Stories of lost loved ones due to senseless gun violence, broken homes, dysfunctional families, and poverty are all unfortunate but common realities for not all but many in our club and community.
To provide our wrestlers a break from these challenges, MDWC began actively planning and raising funds to provide an annual retreat for our wrestlers where the expectations were to be themselves, compete to the best of their best ability and enjoy life. This year’s retreat was the Session 6 Wrestling Camp founded by Mike Clayton of USA Wrestling and masterfully directed by Reggie Rea and the BGM wrestling family. The camp provided all that we want our young people to experience in a wrestling camp and set an atmosphere of respect, healthy competition and inclusion.
When we arrived at Session 6 Wrestling Camp, our team was combined with wrestlers from Holden High School to compete together for the week in dual meets and the team Olympics. Holden is a rural community outside of Kansas City, Missouri, about four hours west of St. Louis. Holden has roughly 2,400 residents; their high school educates under 400 students with less than 6 percent being nonwhite.
Major Decision Wrestling Club draws from a few neighboring communities, but the main community is Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis with a population of 21,000 — 66 percent of its residents are black and 29 percent are white. The high school that most our wrestlers attend is McCluer North, with a student body of close to 1,800 students and population that’s 77 percent black, 16 percent white.
Each set of wrestlers brought their own set of issues and preconceived notions of the other. Our teams were a stark example of the differences of the two communities. The young men were apprehensive of their new teammates to say the least. The first comment was, “Holden? Where’s that?” I overheard some of my team start to speak with a stereotypical country twang and say phrases like “Merica” and “I’ll tell you what.” Across the mat, the looks of discomfort were louder than any words spoken. My coach and I both agreed that this would be an adventure.
Day 1 went by with almost no interaction between our respective squads. No cheering during our competitions. No jokes or conversations between matches. The fear of perception was heavy. All that these young men could draw from was what they’ve been taught about each other, what they’ve seen on social media, and the small sample size of what they had experienced.
Despite statistics and major differences of this group of young men, I wish I could say that I had the brilliant idea that could bring them together as one team. Thank goodness someone else did: John Jones, the head coach of the Holden wrestling team. He saw the divide of our newly formed team and had a plan that could break the ice between us: a cookout.
Coach Jones started a conversation with our team coach Jake Lapinski, sharing his idea of having an outing with our teams. We thought it would be good for our guys to meet new people. So we agreed. There wasn’t much push back since wrestlers love to eat and free food tastes even better. Coach Jones set up the location and supplied the food, drinks and snacks.
When we arrived, the vibe kind of resembled a middle school dance. Our crew stood on one side of the pavilion and Holden stood on the other. Oddly, the consolidating juncture was the sight of a merry-go-round. Both teams bolted to it and climbed aboard. They worked together with all their speed and strength to spin it to probable world record speeds. The longer they spent on the contraption the more they bonded. When they decided they had enough, they dizzily stumbled to the park table where the food was readily available.
Conversations began. One group was enthralled in a conversation discussing the reproduction process of whales. As I looked at another group, I saw a Holden kid lightly touching the hair of one of our kids in total amazement of the soft spongy texture of it. A small group was led to the lake by a member of the Holden team as he shared his fishing poles. They fished and shared stories and their philosophies on fishing as no one caught a thing.
The coaches sat around the grill making hamburgers and bratwursts. We shared our personal stories. Coach Jones told us of how he finally found a home at Holden High School and the many pit stops along the way. As we talked I realized that although our modes of transportation differed, our journeys were similar. All three of us expressed our appreciation for our wives and our love for our children and family. We talked about the young people that we’ve coached that impacted our lives and told funny stories of our current teams.
As the event ended, you could see real friendships forming. It was a blessing to see them have a great time. When it was time to go, there were some high fives, handshakes and some hugs. We took a picture, said our goodbyes and so ended the evening.
The impact was evident during the last few days of camp. We were one team. We ate together, took pictures together, and drilled together. No one wrestled without a loud cheering sections. The team spirit and encouragement were remarkable. The conversations continued. Stereotypes were proven wrong. Fear was replaced by friendship. All this was made possible by a coach stepping out and doing something positive to promote unity. His simple action not just created an excellent team atmosphere but also took down barriers between our young people.
The most beautiful thing about this event is that it can be replicated by wrestling coaches and teams all over the country. There is great power in love and unity. In many communities the racial, economic and cultural divides are as close as a walk across the street. Wrestling coaches can find creative ways to bring people together to enjoy our sport and the people in it. The absence of fear produces a clear path to obtaining remarkable life experiences. No sport can teach an individual anything. It’s the coaches and facilitators of a sport that have the power to influence the character of athletes either positively or negatively.
The wrestling community works hard to be accepting and supportive to all that chose to lace up their shoes and toe the line for competition. Our teams saw through this experience that wrestling is truly a sport for anyone. Wrestling is for the tall, short, fit, not so fit, gay, straight, Latino, white or black. This community has people who love gaming, gangster movies and romance novels. There are people who participate in multiple sports, play multiple instruments and speak multiple languages. We’ve all found something that attracted us to this sport and fortunately, from this great sport we’ve found special things that attracted us to each other.