As a sport uniform, the singlet is unique. The single austere piece of polyester and cotton weave normally doesn't allow for the frivolities of football and basketball outfits where players seemed predisposed to tinkering with their individual appearance -- projecting a public persona through arm bands, knee wraps, shooting sleeves and headbands. Wrestlers are limited to the basics: team shoes, athletic socks, and assigned singlets.
Like the sport that popularized its use, the singlet is simple; so when Dakota Trom stepped onto the mat in elementary school with a pink ribbon stitched across the lumbar section of his back, fans and wrestlers took notice.
Dakota Trom locks up a cradle in the finals of the Minnesota Christmas Tournament (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)Young Dakota spent his time away from wrestling watching as his mother battled breast cancer. She had been diagnosed when he was 3 and by the time he started middle school wrestling she had already battled her first diagnosis for five years, experienced a remission, then been diagnosed for a second time. It was that second battle with cancer, three years in total, which finally took her life. Dakota was 12.
Lottie Trom had been sick for much of Dakota's life, but still managed to be a devoted mother, spending her healthy moments in the car with her kids, whisking them to tournaments and college dual meets 20 miles away at the University of Minnesota. Lottie was, at her core, always a wrestling mom.
"Lottie was a super mom in a lot of ways," says Apple Valley High School (Minn.) head wrestling coach Jim Jackson. "She was super involved, and always driving the kids anywhere they needed to be -- heck, even her daughters got involved in the program. Both of them were managers of the team."
Lottie's dedication to wrestling wasn't passed through generations of tough Minnesota wrestlers; she had found the sport for her son through geographical coincidence. It was popular to be a wrestler in Apple Valley and though neither she nor her husband Brice had any family members with cauliflower ear, Dakota joined the local little league team with their full backing
Dakota Trom will look to join Apple Valley great Chad Erikson (seated next to Trom) as a four-time state champion (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)"He's always been a high-energy kid," says his father. "Even when he was little it was always jumping around and wanting to wrestle. I guess that isn't all that strange, but even if he wasn't winning as a kid, he always had a smile on his face."
Lottie's dedication to her son's pursuits and the bond that mothers hold over their young children inspired Dakota to make that first statement. He wanted to show his wrestling world that the battles he fought at home would be the inspiration for the battles he took on the mat.
The pink ribbon that once adorned the back of a pee-wee wrestler has now been replicated, enlarged, and celebrated by the entirety of the Apple Valley wrestling team.
"That first ribbon in high school was pretty big," says Brice Trom.
The family had been concerned that the athletic league or another coach might complain, but the call for change never came.
"We were happy that they let him keep the ribbon on the back."
Dakota Trom captured his third state title this past March (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)The next year Dakota moved the ribbon to the front of his singlet where it was joined -- as had become the custom -- by pink shin-high socks.
Dakota became a wildly successful high school wrestler, winning three titles for Apple Valley. He reached the Cadet National finals in freestyle. Brice Trom watched as his son won the majority of his matches, though at times, when he failed to win, he watched as he carried the weight of the losses, though never getting as low or as high as other emotionally volatile wrestlers.
"With Dakota it ebbs and flows -- most of the time he uses [Lottie] for extra support and drive. Maybe sometimes if things don't go right -- he doesn't get too worked up. He relates things back to her and he doesn't get super high and super low, takes the tops and bottoms off of things," Brice Trom says. "He was 12 years old and made to swallow a pretty big bullet."
The pink ribbon caught on at Apple Valley, where other wrestlers had experienced loss due to breast cancer. Dakota's first ribbon and socks were a catalyst for several more wrestlers to wear them during matches. Dakota said that it has been nice "to get support from my teammates and the wrestling community."
Dakota lost his mother young, but recognizes that in a way it taught him some important lessons about the severity of a loss.
"Losing my mom matured me and taught me how to deal with loss and let go and accept that nothing could have been done.
Dakota Trom reached the Cadet National finals at 130 pounds in the summer of 2010 (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)"I know that I'm not going to win every time, but I know that I should try my best every time. That's the important thing that my mom would want to see."
Dakota isn't just a leader on the Apple Valley team (he's a captain), he also leads a grief group for students who have recently experienced loss, as a part-time counselor. He says that learning about himself has made the transition to the stress of the big stage easier.
"I get on the mat and the ribbon is there on my chest," says Dakota. "She's always there with me. It's not just being sad anymore. She's by my side and watching."
The three-time state champion verbally committed to the University of Minnesota. Dakota had been a hot commodity in early recruiting -- a talented, successful lightweight from a well-coached national powerhouse program -- but Brice says his son always wanted to wrestle for the Gophers.
"He had his mind made up when he was young," says Brice Trom. "It was a goal of his to wrestle there. He could have left, but he's a homer and wanted to stick around the family."
Dakota Trom, who is ranked as the nation's No. 48 recruit, is one of four InterMat Top 100 recruits from Minnesota to commit to the Gophers (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)That family includes his mother, who Dakota says he wants to honor in college by wrestling in an arena where she took him to watch those college dual meets.
Next fall his car will be packed with sheets, clothes, and a mini-fridge, but he's also bringing something else ... a pink ribbon for his Gopher singlet.
"I'm going to push to wear a ribbon on my singlet, but I know it's different in college. There's just different rules."
Dakota says he'll continue to wear his socks and participate in charity events like Relay for Life and the Susan G. Komen's 3-Day Walk for the Cure. And when he takes to the mat, whether with a ribbon or just socks he says he'll be just fine.
"I know she's watching me, and when I try my best she'll be proud."