My best friend and former teammate was visiting from out of town, and a dinner with mutual friends seemed appropriate for his arrival. I'm not a monk, and as promised in an earlier article, I drank a few glasses of red wine. My meal was equally indulgent, as I took down healthy portions of chips, salsa, and a lime-cooked ceviche appetizer. Glasses were clinked; jokes were told.
T.R. Foley gets ready to competeThe next morning I arrived at Welsh-Ryan Arena fifteen minutes before weigh-ins. In the back room of the complex I was reminded of the less-playful realities inside a collegiate weigh-in: gaunt-faces, sallow skin and the constant thwacking of jump ropes. Some of the Northwestern wrestlers I've come to know over the years paced by me, most shirtless and shoeless, each holding their phone manically checking the time and texting loved ones their current condition. Their faces looked soured, lips purple.
I was wearing jeans, some boots, and a sensible winter sweater.
In line I found a moment to take mental snapshots of the competition, most had a heat coming from behind their eyes -- their competitive urges mixing together with a dash of desperation. Whatever their motivation, the stress of it all was being worn on each of their faces -- an unsettling sight for someone intent on a good-natured scuffle.
My weight class seemed full and with few exceptions I was the shortest member, and at 182 pounds likely the lightest. I hadn't cut weight or changed my diet in any significant way and felt that my 'old man strength' -- the tensile toughness retained in grip and good positioning -- would equalize their impressive physiques. Either way, my mood seemed so much better than my opponents' that I wondered if a psychological victory wasn't impossible.
I had spent the past year in jiu-jitsu rooms, with my wrestling background making me an exception among the other grapplers. Most of that separation came from a physical tenacity instilled by training in an NCAA room for five years. There are several similarities between wrestling and jiu-jitsu, but one of the main differences (outside of submissions) are the common breaks inside a jiu-jitsu match, where back exposure isn't harshly penalized and where competitors take brief moments to recompose their breathing.
Of course wrestling does not offer easy-outs or breaks inside a typical seven-minute match. Those moments of composure would ultimately be what separated my collegiate opponents from their middle-aged competitor. I came to compete out of my lifelong passion for the sport and interest in re-calibrating my own career and experiences. They came to win.
I was given a bye in the first round when my opponent from North Dakota State either did not make weight, or possibly duffed skin checks. The break should have meant that I would retain the limited energy I had for the day, but it would also leave me confront my pre-match anxieties (jitterbugs, if you will) against the fifth-seeded Braden Atwood from Purdue University.
The match started well. We danced a bit before I hit a slide-by and scored a quick two. Once on top I was able to throw-in a half, scissor the body, deepen the half and wait for the fall call. I waited ... and waited ... and waited. Eventually Braden turned his chest back towards the mat. He would later earn an escape and late slide-by takedown of his own to end the period.
The age difference was beneficial for my comparative skill level, but a noticeable hindrance for conditioning. As Braden jogged back to the circle, I noticed that my head began to pound hard enough that I wondered if skull was being softened from the inside-out.
T.R. Foley talks to referee Kevin TannThe referee would caution me three times at the beginning of the second for something I was told by many of my friends looked like a stall technique. It was genuine confusion. Apparently -- and this was not made clear to me until the third caution which resulted in a point -- there was now a "set" in front of the starting whistle. To my friends: I maintain my innocence; To Kevin Tann: You really should have given me the heads up after the first caution.
Where I do plead guilty (and where I deserve some lashings) was in taking an injury time to start the second, during which I'm pretty confident I heard Purdue head coach Scott Hinkel scream, "He's not injured, he's just tired."
I'd argue that the most damage done to my body -- as further evidenced by my now-lingering cough -- was to my lungs, which were woefully over-expanded and which left my torso stiff for days. Also, lungs are a vital internal organ and I would classify any distress/misery/failure to them as an "injury" of the highest order.
The break did not help and I was not able to recapture any wind for the start of the third period. The gasping began to extinguish my spirit ("Why am I doing this?"). Despite what my coaches told me growing up, death I was certain did come before passing out. My eyes had begun to cross, and my head - once filled with great ideas for late-match techniques -- was as jumbled as a snow globe. A bad locked hands call (Kevin!) and subsequent reversal sealed my fate. Next came the enthusiastic bar arm of the Boilermaker, which reminded me that rehabbing a torn rotator cuff wasn't in my five-year plan. I lost by fall.
T.R. Foley attempts an inside tripI have an incredible amount respect for the hard work of the 19-year-old Atwood. He showed incredible resilience in climbing back from an early hole. He was physically strong, in excellent condition, and while he was no doubt encouraged by my inability to take a breathe without muttering an impish, "Dear, God ..." He wrestled with balls.
After I recovered from the severe physical trauma caused to my lungs (imagine an over-filled inner tube, lumpy and threatening to explode) I picked up my phone and listened to a voicemail from my former boss, Cal Poly head wrestling coach Brendan Buckley,
"Foley ... No time to be sulking. You're a wrestler ... get back up ... alright?"
It was the correct motivation for the moment. I had entered a wrestling tournament, and while the first match had felt like being tied to an anchor in the middle of maelstrom, I had signed up to compete. I would not default.
I won my next match by slowing the pace and earning a reversal and an escape. My opponent, perhaps wisely, chose to stay off bottom, but was close to earning the win after almost finishing a gutsy last second high crotch.
T.R. Foley gets put to his backThe final match of the day was against an Iowa wrestler who felt freakishly strong, and with Jon Jones-like reach was able to keep me well away from his legs. My luck turned bad when a roll-through chin lock attempt (lazy man's technique) landed me on my back in the first period. However, my fate was sealed in the second when an attempted turn from top ended with me being reversed AND throwing what was likely the tournament's only jiu-jitsu arm bar submission. It's not too much to say that by the end of my wrestling night, 10:30 p.m., I was running on the atomic remnants of the fumes in my gas tank. I was tuckered.
Where did it all go pear-shaped? I would argue it didn't, really. If were I to compete again I would have wrestled more live in the weeks leading up to the event. I had worked on timing and reorienting myself to funky situations, but failed to ever set the clock to seven minutes and let loose. It's difficult, if not impossible, to get a full seven-minute match against collegiate competition without stepping into a college room. You can run and lift, drill and sweat, but when it comes to the 10-percent more required by college wrestling, you just have to be in that room, surrounded by guys whose mission it is to win an NCAA title.
The negative takeaway is the popularity of American wrestling will always be limited by the level of conditioning it asks from its competitors. I know the justification and the pride behind such things, the mantras of "Iowa Style," "extending your lead" and "breaking your opponent." Those have paid off nicely for our warriors in MMA, but from a stability standpoint it's impossible to ask the same of athletic adults who value time with their family and their health, more than they do a total commitment to self-hating forms of conditioning exercises. It's why so many former wrestlers have moved over to jiu-jitsu -- sustainability matters.
In Mongolia many of the older men still compete in the summer wrestling festival of NaadamCould there be room for organizations that allow the growing wrestling community to compete in much the same style as before, but with less chance of injury, and a lesser need for good conditioning? Takedown rules and room for breathers wouldn't be a bad start. Upright-only wrestling is the most popular form of wrestling in the world, and excellent examples of cultures exist where octogenarians suit up for competition.
After this weekend there is plenty I would like to see changed in college wrestling, but nothing more than the new rules around calling for an injury timeout. My belief is that the rule will eventually be overturned, likely as a result of a parent complaining that a coach risked the wrestler's health rather than give up a positional advantage or point. It's not barbaric, but it intentionally values the perception of toughness over the reality of injury. Already this season I've seen wrestlers risk a greater threat to their body rather than succumb to the necessary and healthy decision to stop action and evaluate the extent of their injuries. I agree that injury timeouts like the one's I took against Atwood aren't agreeable, but making the health decision for a wrestler is a dangerous, perhaps even liable alternative.
Wrestling is in our blood. For most fans and competitors it frames our worldview for the rest of our adult life. I was unhappy, moody and cantankerous as a collegiate wrestler. This past weekend I wrestled with contentment about my journey and with an eye towards picking up on details I might have missed in the past -- none more significant than the realization that I value my older self's relative emotional and psychological stability more than I value the ability to showcase athletic talents.
American collegiate wrestling asks more of its competitors than any other sport, and that should remain, philosophically, unchanged. But wouldn't it be nice if we could share the complexity of our sport with more people -- bring them closer to the world we have grown to love and appreciate?
I think so, and I'm willing to keep trying. And in the future, if I decide to enter the 50th Midlands, the World Team Trials, or a Kushti tournament in Lahore, I'll remind myself that the miserable part is over and that this is fun.
Because this is supposed to be fun, right?