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Chipman, 44, redefines notion of "senior wrestler"

Mark Palmer

11/28/2013
Mark Palmer, InterMat Senior Writer
mark@intermatwrestle.com, Twitter: @MatWriter

For college wrestlers entering their senior year, it's a time of mixed emotions. For those who aren't pursuing an Olympic dream, there's the bittersweet realization that this may well be their last season competing on the mat ... so there's pressure to end their careers on a high note by winning conference and national titles.

For one college senior, those mixed feelings take on added poignancy. Rick Chipman, a full-time firefighter and family man, redefines the notion of "senior wrestler" not just because he's embarking on his senior year as a wrestler at the University of Southern Maine ... but also as a wrestler who, at age 44, is a number of years "senior" to his teammates and opponents.

Anticipating your questions

A couple questions immediately come to mind when talking to a wrestler who is twice the age of most collegiate matmen.

Rick Chipman
Is Chipman the oldest wrestler to step onto the mats in college?

"I'm not sure," the Maine native told InterMat. "I believe I'm the oldest, but I do know for a fact I'm the oldest-ever Academic All-American wrestler."

And, is Chipman a newbie to the sport? One could imagine a guy in the midst of a midlife crisis, who, instead of purchasing a Porsche, decides to take up wrestling. You might also be picturing someone with a bucket list, who, rather than run with the bulls in Spain, made a promise to step onto a mat against studs half his age. (You may have read about the 40-year-old former college wrestler who fought an MMA bout this summer because it was on the bucket list he created two decades ago.)

The answer to both of those notions is no. (More on Chipman's mat career later.)

Granted, it's anything but typical for a guy to be wrestling in college in his 40s. Nowadays, the standard career trajectory for a wrestler is to immediately go from high school mat star right into college (perhaps taking a redshirt freshman year). That means the typical collegiate wrestler is in his early 20s in his senior year.

It hasn't always been so.

Rick Chipman
In the decade or so after World War II, a number of wrestlers completed their college careers well into their twenties, even pushing 30. Some wrestler careers were interrupted by the war; a couple freshmen champs at the 1947 NCAA championships -- Iowa's Joe Scarpello, and Oklahoma State's Dick Hutton -- were hairy-chested World War II vets in their mid to late 20s. Dan Hodge, who graduated from Perry High School in 1951, served in the U.S. Navy before enrolling at the University of Oklahoma in the mid-1950s. When he concluded his college career with a perfect 46-0 record and his third national title at the 1957 NCAAs, Hodge was a 25-year-old married man with an infant son. Even into the early 1960s, there was three-time NCAA finalist and 1961 champ Phil Kinyon who some called "the ancient Marine" because he was in his late 20s when wrestling at Oklahoma State after competing a number of years as a Navy wrestler after high school.

Just a couple years ago, InterMat profiled Justin Decker, a 33-year-old assistant coach at Upper Iowa University, who, after discovering he still had some eligibility left on his competitive career -- and, at the urging of some of his wrestlers -- stepped onto the mats as a senior, a decade after the former Hawkeye wrestler left the University of Iowa.

A career that started in the early 1980s

Chipman is a long-time wrestler whose mat career started in middle school and continued through high school, but got sidetracked by life, and is now resuming again in college as a forty-something.

"In the early '80s, in my gym class in middle school, the girls did gymnastics, while the guys learned wrestling," according to Chipman.

"I had a friend who wrestled on the eighth grade team. During class, I pinned him. He said, 'You should go out for the team.'"

"In my first year, I placed second in my league."

Rick Chipman works from the top position
"In my freshman year of high school, I decided I'd continue wrestling, but had a tough time with upperclassmen," Chipman disclosed. "It wasn't a matter of strength -- I had gained strength from working in the fishing industry, and from rowing a boat -- but more of experience."

"Later that season, I was declared academically ineligible. That put my wrestling career on hold."

"I came back my sophomore year," Chipman continued. "I was a so-so student, not focused on grades. My love of music helped me do well enough in my music classes to get grades that were good enough to continue in wrestling."

"Sophomore year was my breakout year. I wrestled 126, and started beating guys who I wasn't expected to beat."

"I qualified for state that year, and placed fourth."

"I really came into my own as a junior, coming in second at state."

"As a senior, there were a couple returning state champs in my weight class, which made things tougher. I came in third place at state."

"It was at that point that I came to the realization that my wrestling career was over," according to Chipman.

"It really hung over my head that I was never a state champ."

"As a young adult, I went to Plymouth State (where located). I went out for wrestling, went to practices, but ended up not staying in school. I realized that I didn't want to become a music teacher."

That was the beginning of Rick Chipman's exile from wrestling.

"I had a son and a daughter when I was in my early 20s," said Chipman. "It was difficult for me to follow the sport. I lost touch with wrestling."

"I had wrestled with my son at home. As he got older -- 8 or 9 -- we started talking about wrestling."

Getting back into the sport ... through coaching

"When I got hired by the Bath Fire Department, we had to relocate there," according to Chipman. "Bath had a pee wee wrestling program. Got my son Spencer to go out for the sport."

Rick Chipman battles with his opponent
"Within a couple years, I became head coach of the pee wee program."

"Spencer started to have some success," Chipman continued. "But, by eighth grade, he started talking about quitting. I said, 'OK' but his mother told him to stick it out."

"It worked out for him. In fact, it became a passion for him." (Spencer ended up being a three-time state placer in Maine.)

Rick Chipman rekindled his own passion for wrestling, through coaching. After a stint as a pee wee coach, Chipman moved on to become assistant coach at Bath Middle School, then served as head coach for five or six years.

"All of this got me to see what wrestling meant to the community and to the families of the wrestlers," said Chipman. "Families with kids who were 'rough around the edges' were so supportive. They came out for wrestling events, and created a fantastic fan base."

Time to go back to school

"I started talking to high school coaches, asking them about going back to school. I've always been interested in the law. I figured I could get a bachelor's degree, then go on to law school."

"Some of my friends said, 'So, are you going to wrestle in college?'"

"I shared their comments with my wife, who said, 'Why not?'"

"I put in my application to University of Southern Maine, and sent an email to (wrestling) coach (Joe) Pistone," said Chipman. "I told him I had coached for a number of years, and was wanting to resume my wrestling career, even though I was coming up on age 40. There were no issues of eligibility."

Reactions

"Coach told the team that they would have a 40-year-old guy coming out. A couple guys objected at first, but we've become friends."

"I definitely didn't want to bring shame to the sport, or my team."

"At the beginning of each season, I'd get weird looks from the new guys, but the veterans would greet me with high fives," according to Chipman. "I've been academic team captain for the past three years" -- an honor bestowed upon him by his coaches for his outstanding performance in the classroom.

Freshman year was a true challenge for the 40-year-old firefighter. "I had something like 18 losses and three wins," Chipman disclosed. "However, after winter break, half the team was declared academically ineligible. I suddenly became the starting 165-pounder."

"It wasn't so much a win-or-lose thing, but not having to forfeit the match."

Rick Chipman with a few of his teammates
(Academic issues are no longer much of an issue for the Southern Maine matmen. In the words of Rick Chipman, "Coach has done a great job monitoring athletes." Part of the turnaround may be credited to Chipman, who, as a family man, full-time firefighter and part-time hospital paramedic, has learned a thing or two about time management ... and has been able to share that experience with his teammates who are having trouble with classes or managing their schedules.)

What about reactions from opponents?

"There's a bit of a 'freak show' aspect -- all eyes are on me," said Chipman. "My body is in shape, but my face looks 44. Some opponents do a double-take when we face off."

When asked if he's ever been openly disrespected by a mat rival, Chipman responded, "No, the opposite, in fact. I'll have a guy seek me out after a dual meet or tournament and say something like, 'Man, you were tough."

"Opponents don't treat me any different."

A matter of age

Wrestling is an incredibly demanding sport. It can only be even tougher when your opponents are half your age.

"Getting tired is not an option," said Chipman. "I work hard on conditioning."

"I work out on my own, as well as in practice. They don't take it easy on me in practice, either. The coaches get on me if they don't think I'm working hard enough."

As a wrestler in his 40s, Chipman faces challenges that even the toughest workout routine can't overcome.

"In your 30s, you lose some fast-twitch muscle. I'm not as fast as I once was. I can't make as quick a shot."

"I'm not as flexible, either. If I've got a strong opponent who is working me in a direction, well, in high school, I might have gradually gone over. Now, there's the risk of something popping or tearing."

"When I was in high school, I felt invincible," Chipman told InterMat. "I could do anything to my body to win. Yesterday (at a tournament), I didn't feel invincible; in fact, I found myself in a 'save yourself' mentality after my legs cramped up vs. the No. 1 seed. I was questioning myself for the first time. It was frightening. You can't have that in wrestling. The next match I wrestled, I pushed through."

"If I get hurt, I'm out of work" -- not just on the mat, but in his professional career as a first responder as well.

Chipman's schedule would stress out even those who consider themselves masters of time management. He works 42 hours a week as a firefighter, 12 hours per week as a paramedic at a hospital, along with being a college student ... and, of course, a student-athlete.

So ... why does Rick Chipman do it?

Rick Chipman gets in on a single leg
"My wife is the reason. She's taken over my role back home while I'm in school."

"Thanks to technology, I can have face time with my kids and my wife when I'm away at a tournament."

There are reasons that go beyond family ... beyond some sort of personal quest.

"It's satisfying to be competitive again," Chipman said. "If I have inspired someone to do something like this, that's great. For instance, there's a guy on our team who came back after serving in Afghanistan, who is now on our team. He's 26."

Rick Chipman had been something of a reluctant interview subject. This writer contacted him a couple years ago, when he first made headlines in the Maine media as the over-40 college freshman wrestler/first responder. Seeing a neat human interest story that would speak to the wrestling community well beyond the state of Maine, I thought he'd make a great subject for an InterMat profile. At the time, Chipman gracefully declined the invitation ... without completely closing the door.

Recently, Chipman decided it was time to talk.

"I'm a senior now. I've proven that I've done it. My sophomore year, I was 16-6. I have the grade point average and have become a Scholar All-American, one of only 132 in the nation in Division III."

"I've had some success," Chipman continued. "I've contributed to the team. I didn't need the team to give to me, but I wanted to give back to the team."

Comments

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Sheerstress (1) about 9 months ago
Great article! The guy works full time, goes to school full time, has a family, and still finds time to be a collegiate wrestler?! Truly extraordinary time management!
trooperjet (1) about 9 months ago
My son wrestled Rick at All New Englands during each ones Freshman year. I was seated along the mat getting ready to film and a nice lady sat next to me with her camera. I asked if that was her son getting ready to wrestle my son. She chuckled and said no it was her husband and then she proceeded to tell me Rick's story. I wished he wasn't wrestling my son because he immediately became my second favorite wrestler! There was no quit in his spirit. Not sure if he remembers but I sought him out and let him know how much I admired him. Best of luck to Rick as he is an inspiration to all.
chocell (1) about 9 months ago
That's just amazing. I'm 41 and could not imagine trying to compete at the collegiate level at this age.

I also like what he said about wrestling meaning so much to kids who are a little rough around the edges. I coached in a youth program in a rural town where there were a lot of single moms, poverty, and drug/alcohol abuse. The wrestling program gave these kids some father figures in the coaches and big brothers in their team mates. These kids who were supposedly behavior problems in school and the community flourished in wrestling - they all of sudden became model citizens who would not just listen to their coaches, but also to their parents and teachers.