Tacoma will be invaded Friday by an army of 1,200 battle-hardened warriors. They will descend on the Tacoma Dome from every large city, small town and forgotten hamlet in this state for a two-day brawl called Mat Classic.
If you’ve never witnessed this annual exposition of high school wrestling, you’ve missed one of the true spectacles of Tacoma. Believe me, there is nothing else quite like it anywhere.
After this army weighs in for the last time this season, they will descend like locusts on local eateries in an effort to sate the 4,000-plus-calorie-a-day habit required to fuel their high-performance bodies.
They’re generally polite and well-mannered; I just wouldn’t stand between one of them and the buffet line unless you ache to be on the receiving end of a “gator roll” (don’t ask).
The support brigade for this army consists of 15,000 friends, family and wrestling aficionados who pack the Dome and cheer or wail at every takedown, escape and pin awarded.
Yet despite the fervor in the stands, the hallways and aisles showcase some of the politest folks you’ll ever meet. Doors are held open, “after you” is frequently heard, and “sir” a common salutation. Perhaps in a place crawling with current and former wrestlers, bad manners seem ill advised.
High school wrestling is a world unto its own, and every year on the third weekend in February, the Tacoma Dome becomes its Mecca. The floor of the Dome in covered with 24 mats, and six separate tournaments are held concurrently. There is pomp and ceremony, victory and exaltation, heartbreak and defeat. By the end on Saturday, new state champions will be crowned and medals awarded to the top eight competitors in each weight. Just to qualify for the state tournament is victory, but to medal is sublime.
There are many special moments at Mat Classic: the running of the zebras (referees), the Parade of Champions, announcer Ed Aliverrti’s stirring rendition of “America the Beautiful” and the unbridled joy of a freshly minted state champion leaping into the arms of the coaches who helped him get there.
My favorite moment every year is the flag salute. At the start of each day’s competition, everyone falls still for the national anthem – everyone except the 103-pounders. In the hush you can hear them tap-tap-tapping, bouncing from foot to foot. With one hand on their hearts and the other clutching their ear-guards, there is no stilling these balls of kinetic energy. Their tournament starts as soon as the anthem ends.
Wrestlers are my favorite people in the world. To say they are physically tough is cliché. What distinguishes wrestlers is that they are mentally tough beyond measure.
It is will that drives wrestlers to do things most people can’t imagine even possible. To wrestle live for six minutes requires conditioning beyond most people’s comprehension.
Daily practice for a wrestler might start with a four-mile run followed by 30 minutes of calisthenics, 20 minutes of hard live wrestling, 40 minutes of drilling and technique, followed by more wrestling, drilling and calisthenics. A typical wrestler can lose three to five pounds in a three- hour practice (that’s where the 4,000-calorie habit comes in).
All this they endure with the singular aim of competing in the Tacoma Dome in February.
Eventually, young wrestlers realize that this is so much more than a sport. Wrestling is a life philosophy. Young people learn how to challenge themselves, how to train to do extraordinarily difficult things that others dare not even dream. And if coaches and parents have done their jobs well, the wrestlers will carry these lessons with them through life.
Congratulations to everyone who qualified for state, but especially to Michael. You always make us proud.
Former News Tribune guest columnist John Earl is a former wrestler who will compete in the old-timers wrestling tournament in Gig Harbor on March 7. Paramedics will be standing by. Reach him at email@example.com.