As a fifth-year senior at Penn, I have always felt that the wrestling team was misunderstood to a certain extent. Not many people have been inside a wrestling room, let alone No. 23 Penn’s exceedingly competitive Division I room.
Wrestlers are a different breed. We carry around battle scars and the mental anguish of every match we have ever lost. Wrestling is as intense and mentally demanding a sport as there is. It is the ultimate test of strength, flexibility, conditioning and character.
Unlike most sports, wrestling is one-on-one. It is a seven-minute war. There are no pads, no timeouts and nobody to hide behind. At its core, wrestling teaches personal responsibility above anything else. If you lose, it’s your fault — and yours alone. And to a wrestler, nothing hurts more than losing.
Ask any wrestler on our team if he has any of his second-place medals. The answer is no. My 2011 Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association Championships silver medal is somewhere on the shoulder of I-76.
I’ve seen grapplers smash trophies, punch holes through walls and even rip out a bathroom sink in the heat of the moment after a loss. It’s hard to convey that disappointment to people who haven’t experienced it. Losing is emasculating on a very personal level. Try to imagine having your mom tell you that you aren’t her favorite child — it’s that kind of feeling.
Wrestlers must quickly learn that when you fall, you have to pick yourself back up. Losing makes us all hungrier. It makes us lift a little heavier, run a little farther, wrestle a little harder. Each time you step onto the mat, all you have is confidence, toughness, heart and the will to win — earned through the grueling training you submit to and conquer.
During wrestling season, which spans from October to March, we live a tight, regimented lifestyle. Most days start with a morning workout. Three days a week, we get in the Weiss Pavilion weight room with assistant strength and conditioning coach Stephen Brindle at 7:45 a.m. Other mornings, it’s just me, sprinting lap after lap around the Palestra.
Practices usually span two hours and a couple of T-shirts. The majority of them are devoted to repeating and perfecting the same moves we have been executing since we were 5 years old.
Since the goal of the sport is to physically beat your opponent as badly as possible, it is not uncommon for things to get emotional, even in the practice room. But when we leave the room, we all know to leave any animosity behind. I have often traded punches with a teammate only to find myself sitting next to him a half hour later, laughing and eating dinner.
Depending on what day it is, dinner may be omitted. For most wrestlers, cutting weight just comes with the territory. Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about how we lose so much weight. It’s no secret.
We lose about six pounds during an afternoon practice, don’t eat or drink much that night and come in for another workout the next morning. Pretty quickly you realize you are 10 pounds lighter than you were yesterday. It’s more of a lifestyle change than anything else.
Once down to our respective weight, our minds are beyond the point of hunger. It’s quite possible to be so hungry that you’re not actually hungry. Pushing yourself through multiple workouts in a day without putting much back in can be the most mentally challenging part of the sport.
I’ve also been asked why we do it. We are not going pro — we will not be making a million dollars wrestling. Why put our minds and bodies through such a struggle?
To me, knowing that I have the ability to push another human to his breaking point is a powerful motivator. The feeling of winning a wrestling match is like no other feeling in life — it can’t really be described in words. Wrestling is a combat sport, pitting two athletes’ most bare and primal instincts against each other.
Winning is addicting. So addicting, in fact, that you realize you are willing to do whatever it takes, whether it’s cutting 10 pounds in a day or waking up at 6 a.m. to get an extra workout in, all just to experience the feeling of standing at the top — that feeling of pure euphoria.
I guess my answer as to why I do it is that I have always felt that I was doing something others around me couldn’t. I have adopted this crazy lifestyle just for the opportunity to chase my sport’s most elusive dream: being NCAA Division I Champion.
I love wrestling. I love the feeling of knowing I cannot be broken.
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