Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 4.3.08

On the Mat
A healthy option to team sports
By Jim Evangelista

Bouncing through the night in a rowdy school bus carrying the South Eugene wrestling team home after districts in Roseburg, it occurred to me, an outsider would be hard pressed to tell if we’d won or lost. Spirited conversations in small groups chatting and laughing; remembering some “tight” winning matches and heartbreaker losses, could well have been celebratory winners savoring their dominance over their opponents. From my seat, and despite the referee calls and final scores, they were all winners.

When my son began wrestling for South, he was stepping way outside his comfort zone, like many who attempt the sport. Video games and hanging out with buddies don’t prepare kids for the workouts and schedules that wrestling require. To my son’s credit, he steps up, sticks it out and wins his share of matches, supported by Coach Gabriel Hammel, his coaching staff and teammates. Since he’s made the commitment, I videotape all the matches and post them on Youtube, where they can be used as training tools, as well as giving families and friends a chance to watch when they cannot be there in person.

An unexpected byproduct of this experience has been the opportunity to learn about and appreciate this under-recognized sport first hand.

Plato, a wrestler himself, said “The greatest struggle is the one against the self, and your opponent is there to help you in that struggle.” This is one aspect of the wrestler’s experience that offers a vital element of a student’s academic/personal development that other sports fall short of providing. As ever-increasing numbers of girls are becoming involved in the sport, its universal appeal and benefits are becoming more understood, appreciated and valued.

When a wrestler steps out on the mat, it’s all up to her or him. While you are coached and practice as a team, you wrestle as an individual. Pitted against another individual, you win or lose based on your skills and ability to make the right choice at the right time. You earn the respect of your opponent as well as give it. Wrestlers shake hands at the beginning and end of the match and often are friendly, exchange techniques and camaraderie off the mat. All are valuable life skills.

During one match, a wrestler with autism from another school confided that he felt like a failure when he didn’t win a match. I responded that every time he got into the ring to wrestle he was a winner. He made himself proud, as well as his coach, teammates, family and friends. We all knew he was a winner for practicing hard, showing up to matches and wrestling with skill and heart, “and isn’t that what matters ?” He agreed and remained positive, and went on to win his next match.

While lots of kids begin early joining mat clubs and other wrestling activities, most find wrestling as an alternative high school sports option. Some communities like Roseburg, Medford, Springfield and Cottage Grove have developed a deep community culture of wrestling over time, running sophisticated, well funded programs that produce many state champions. Hosting these wrestling invitationals bring visitors with dollars into our communities, as well as expanding the cultural base.

So why, now, is the UO threatening to cut its funding for wrestling when this dynamic sport is making such a vital impact on our youth, our communities and state culture? With donors giving record figures to Oregon athletics; reports of arenas and land acquisitions are in the news regularly, why isn’t Oregon blazing trails by expanding into a women’s wrestling program ? You can learn more about this at:

A member of the South team pointed out area sports broadcasts never covered any local wrestling events. When he suggested we ought to start our own network, I determined to do what I could to share what I was seeing from my front row seat. The entire season is posted at

I’ve also begun posting interviews with coaches, wrestlers, referees, parents and others as they share their thoughts on the where wrestling has come from, locally, hopes for its future in the district and , certainly, at the UO.

Closing my eyes, bumping along towards home, I replay my own memorable moments from the day’s matches and look forward to spring; weight training, mat clubs; practice and preparation for next year; and of course, there’s a seat for you.

Jim Evangelista teaches life-skills at Lincoln Middle School in Cottage Grove. His son is a junior at SEHS.