Everyone calls him Jules. He moves like water. He's a hardworking and dedicated athlete. But Julian Valtierrez wasn't built for basketball. Or football. Or baseball.
He'll be a senior at William Howard Taft High School in Chicago this year where he'll wrestle at 113 pounds. Valtierrez has an impressive resume for someone who only started to wrestle as a freshman; one match away from all-state as a junior and a Fargo qualifier.
For all he's accomplished in a short time, imagine what might have been if he'd wrestled sooner. If all of the future Julians in Chicago knew of wrestling at a younger age, had it as an easily accessible opportunity and knew the names of its stars, the sport would have an abundance of riches.
While those riches go widely untapped, overall participation numbers for boys in both youth and high school wrestling are down. According to surveys by the National Federation of State High School Associations, participation has dropped in four of the last five years. Based on those same surveys, the sport has lost nearly 24,000 boys in those years for an average of almost 4,800 per year.
But it doesn't have to continue that way.
The solution to slowing, reversing and then building our youth and high school numbers lies in our most populous areas and that's where Beat the Streets is positioned to spearhead the effort.
There are currently eight Beat the Streets programs recognized by our umbrella organization, the newly created Beat the Streets National; Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Cleveland, Boston, Providence and Chicago. The combined population of those eight cities, not including the suburban populations surrounding them, is nearly 18 million people. This is almost as populous as New Mexico, Nebraska, West Virginia, Idaho, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Maine, Montana, Rhode Island, Delaware, South Dakota, North Dakota, Alaska, the District of Columbia, Vermont and Wyoming combined.
Historically, wrestling has been dominated by small town heroes and programs. Doug Blubaugh, Dan Gable, John Smith conjure images of small-town kids going on to become global champions. Oklahoma State and Iowa have combined for 57 national team titles. But there are only so many USA memberships that can be sold in Del City, Oklahoma.
Chicago has 2.7 million people residing in the city proper. With the help of boosters, coaches, volunteers and contributors, Beat the Streets Chicago is poised to grow by leaps and bounds with the hope that the declining numbers in Illinois rebound beyond the previous high. A tiny glimpse of that success can be seen in the nearly 500 more IL/USAW memberships in Chicago in 2018-2019 than in the previous year.
It's not just in Chicago where change is slowly taking shape. Support organization Beat the Streets National added four accredited programs this year throughout the country's most populous cities. That means nearly 115,000 young people now have wrestling opportunities they didn't have before.
New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles are leading the way through leadership, arduous work, and significant resources. The goal for BTS National Executive Director Jeffrey Marsh is to reach more kids and to make the organizations in individual cities into difference makers.
That difference making is sorely needed, not just for the sport, but for the young people who would benefit from the lessons wrestling teaches, arguably better than any other discipline.
A reminder of the need came at the annual Beat the Streets Chicago gala in June. Just blocks from the fundraiser someone shot four people. We heard the gunfire loud and clear. It was an audible, painful and very real call to action. The gunfire underscored the importance wrestling can play in the lives of Chicago's youth. It's why we are doing what we do.
But the wrestling community can do more. More to grow resources and organizations in places that are not traditional wrestling strongholds, but where there is wealth of young people who are in desperate need of distraction, direction and discipline. Wrestling needs our cities and our cities need wrestling.
Join the movement. Make a difference. Jules and the young men like him are our future.
Mike Powell is Executive Director of BTS Chicago. Caryn Ward is a BTS Chicago advisory board member.