Kids learn the sport — and larger life lessons
By Marcy Stamper
Editor’s Note: The original version of this story has been updated to provide the correct name of one of the parent organizers.
About 70 boys and girls from age 4 through sixth grade have been doing push-ups, watching demonstrations of strategies for take-downs, and pairing up to work on their wrestling moves for the past six weeks.
Others — particularly the younger kids — have mainly whirled around on the mats. “Some preschoolers just roll on their back and smile, but they don’t really know what’s going on,” said Liberty Bell High School wrestling coach Paul Schmekel, who has also coached the youth wrestling program for the past three years. “Sometimes it can be hard to relax when they’re not paying attention but, in the end, I just want to make sure they’re having fun.”
Youth wrestling has been going strong in the Methow Valley for at least three decades, a key training ground for the top-notch high school athletes who consistently compete — and win — at state tournaments. But this year the program has attracted a record number of participants, with 73 kids, including about eight girls, learning the sport — and larger life lessons — from the Methow’s top wrestlers.
Schmekel himself started in the program in the 1970s at Allen Elementary School in Twisp. He went on to the state tournament for four straight years in high school until he graduated in 1993.
In addition to Schmekel, about 10 of Liberty Bell’s top wrestlers help out as coaches — this year, Emmett Fink, Danny Humiston and Trent Skelton have all been mentoring the young kids. Parents pitch in to shepherd the young athletes, organize the tournaments, design t-shirts, and keep the whole enterprise running smoothly.
The wrestlers start coaching the little kids the Monday after they return from the state championship. “We try to teach them the basics of wrestling — it’s the same exact rules as in high school,” said Schmekel. He also mixes in games like toe tag and king of the mat. “It can get rowdy,” he admitted.
The main difference is that rounds are shorter — kindergarteners are matched in three rounds of just 30 seconds each. “It doesn’t sound like much,” said Schmekel. “It goes fast, but a lot happens.” Sixth graders compete in one-minute rounds.
With eight kids in each age bracket, by the end of the season most kids have wrestled everyone in their weight category, he said.
At practice last week, Sarah Ferguson watched her son, River, a kindergartener in his second year of wrestling, as he ricocheted across the mats.
“The little guys can choose their level of involvement,” said Ferguson. “Last year, River had a lot of fun, learned a few moves, and got out his little-boy energy.”
Still, like a lot of young wrestlers, River wasn’t sure he wanted to continue after a tough, uncomfortable round. But he also didn’t like the feeling of quitting, so he stuck with it, winning one round and losing the next. “I was so proud of him — I saw a lot of positive effects,” said Ferguson.
“Wrestling is a very emotional sport for kids and parents,” said Schmekel. “They wrestle their heart out.”
“It helps them focus, learn to become a good loser and to let things slide. It’s very centering and grounding,” said Ferguson.
Jennifer Ramsay was watching her son Alex, age 7, and daughter Clara, age 4, as they worked on their moves. Clara, who was proudly wearing her green-and-yellow singlet at practice, beat three little boys at the tournament in Oroville, although after each one Clara said she wasn’t sure she wanted to do it anymore, said Ramsay. “As a parent, it’s really emotional — you really get into it,” she said.
Charlotte Wilson, one of the program’s four indefatigable parent organizers, said her son Gage fell in love with wrestling in kindergarten. He’s now in his fifth year with the program.
Wilson echoed what virtually every parent and coach said about wrestling. “It’s a lot of fun, and it teaches lessons in life,” she said. Compared to other sports where kids are part of a team, in wrestling, “it’s just them out there. It takes a lot of dedication and commitment,” said Wilson.
“They’re all out there by themselves. That’s one of the things I love — it builds so much character to have to step out there and do it themselves. Some kids smile and don’t care, but others are super-nervous,” said Schmekel.
Each of the six Saturday tournaments draws about 200 kids from around Okanogan County and north central Washington. The final tournament is usually in the Methow, which has developed a reputation for “tons of good food” and for the trophies presented to winners instead of medals, said Schmekel. The youth program also helps raise money for the high school wrestlers.
Many of the young wrestlers had already dyed their hair in the Liberty Bell colors, half yellow and half green, with a shaved paw print of a mountain lion, in preparation for the home tournament this weekend.
The final tournament is Saturday (April 4) in the Liberty Bell High School gym, from 10 a.m. to about 2 p.m. Wrestlers weigh in between 8 and 9 a.m.