Just Stepping Out There

May 29, 2009

I’ve talked about Sports I Sucked At in the past, but I feel that I never really explored the depths of what those experiences meant to me.  They were homework assignments in humiliation.  A curriculum of physical pain and mental exhaustion.  But these lesson plans did what they were supposed to.  They made me learn.  And believe it or not, some of these lessons are applicable to other aspects of my life.  I feel that out of all my sports experiences, none of them were as intensely rewarding or disappointing as my time on the High School Wrestling team.

I joined the wrestling team my sophomore year of high school.  To this day I really have no clue what made me do it.  I suppose I saw the writing on the wall in terms of my soccer career.  I didn’t have a chance in hell at making the varsity FussBall squad the next year, but I still needed something to do after school.  I stunk at basketball, almost everyone on the lacrosse team was a bit of douche, and I just couldn’t swallow enough of my adolescent manhood to join the school play.  Wrestling was the only logical option.

Much like my decision to try stand-up comedy, this was completely organic on my part.  I didn’t have anybody pushing for or against me to do it.  It was my idea. I didn’t really know anyone on the team except for my one friend Jeremy.  I had some experience wrestling way back in grade school so I remembered some of the moves.  But still, the easier option was to do nothing.  At that point, I probably could have gotten by with just doing my homework and getting good grades and no one would have faulted me for it.

The first week was pure hell.  I thought I was in decent shape because the soccer season had just ended.  Soccer, I determined after puking into a garbage can 30 minutes before the end of my first practice, was for school-boy sissies.  We did conditioning drills like I had never seen before.  Wind sprints, “hit-its,” and some God-forsaken three person circus drill appropriately titled “Monkey Rolls.”

I had my first ever practice scrimmage at North Hills, a mostly black high school.  All of my teammates let me know that as a rule, city-league kids were pretty bad wrestlers.  They generally were very athletic, but their programs were still in infantile phases and they weren’t as skilled as some of the suburban and rural schools who have had wrestling programs in place for several years.  I went in confident.  I left not so very confident.

Within the first three seconds of my first practice match, a skinny black kid from Woodland Hills proceeded to beat the white right off of me.  I was stretched, suplexed, spine-busted for the better half of the chilly October afternoon.  My dad was there watching with a few other parents who came along.  He couldn’t have been very proud of the way things went.

This pummeling was a good start though.  It really set my expectations for the future of my wrestling career.  I think I was about 7-40 throughout my three years.  It’s a sad state of affairs when your best accomplishment is placing sixth at an all day tournament.

In retrospect though, some of the beatings I took were really quiet funny.  One in particular stands out in my mind.  There were two identical twin brothers who were wrestlers for Waynesburg HS, a rural town about an hour outside of Pittsburgh: the Kirsopp Brothers (I think that was their name).  They were ranked by the state and were strong, skilled and vicious.  Oh yeah…they were in my weight class.  One was 145lbs and the other was 154lbs.

During a meet in Waynesburg, both myself and a kid named Andy were going to be up against the Kirsopps.  Now I was a bad wrestler, terrible by anyone’s standards, but Andy was my practice partner and I beat him on a somewhat regular basis.  That doesn’t say much for Andy.

Andy took to the mat to face-off against the lighter Kirsopp.  Within 10 seconds the rural super-human had lifted Andy over his head and

-honest to God- put him in an airplane-spin that you see the guys on the WWE do.  The crowd was laughing and his coach was telling him to “Be careful…don’t hurt the poor kid.”  Apparently, that Kirsopp had a comprehension problem because he roughly dismounted Andy from his shoulders and drove him into the ground neck first.  Just watching the slam knocked the wind out of me.  Andy’s landing shook the floor and the Kirsopp brother climbed on top and pinned him.  I looked on, my teeth chattering with the immense humiliation I was about to endure at the hands of a heavier, and ostensibly stronger Gemini twin.

I glanced up at my friends in the stands, a few of whom made it out to the Pennsylvania farmland to watch their buddy get annihilated, and shook my head.  They were already laughing.  They could see what was about to happen.

I didn’t get paraded around like Andy did, but I think my match was shorter.  I don’t remember much other than I couldn’t breathe, see, or hear anything until the lummox unclenched his fist from around my windpipe.  I had probably lasted 9 seconds.  Good for bull-riding.  Bad for wrestling.

I can tell you one thing, losing a wrestling match is just about the most upsetting thing a man can do.  It’s literally you getting beat, one-on-one by a better man than you.  There is nothing to hide behind, no coaching strategies to blame it on, and no teammates to use as scapegoats.  Just you.  You lost.  You’re not good enough by a long shot.  That’s it.  But for some reason I kept coming back every week.  What the hell was the matter with me?  Why was I putting myself through this?

I heard a quote one time during the Olympic ceremony for these past Summer games in Beijing.  When Nastia Luikin won her gold medal in Women’s Gymnastics, one announcer asked the other a great question:

“If you’re Nastia Luikin, what are you thinking about at this moment?”

“You are thinking about all the times it would have been OK to quit, but you didn’t.”

So despite the huge time commitment, the humiliation, and the physical pain I still couldn’t bring myself to quit.  It would have been OK for me to do so.  In fact, it would have been logical for me to do so.  And looking back on it, the fact that I got out there on the mat, essentially naked in front of a large group of people, and stood my ground even for just a few seconds, is something that I’m immensely proud of.

I actually think that my wrestling experience has helped with my comedy career as well.  The intensity and fear that you have to overcome when you go in front of a large audience is a lot like a wrestling match.  You need to be confident and skilled.  And if you fail, there is no one to blame it on but yourself.

That’s why just stepping out there is a triumph in and of itself.

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