Mike Pannkuk was sitting at home in Centralia one day when his 5-year-old son, Garrett, said he’d like to try wrestling at a freestyle club in Onalaska.
“My wife Susan took him because I was never really into it,” Pannkuk recalls. “When I finally did go to a practice, I saw he could throw kids around and not get into trouble. I thought, ‘I could get into this.’ ”
Eighteen years later, Pannkuk is a volunteer assistant coach at Olympia High School, helping lead a Bears team that includes his daughter, Karina, and his youngest son, Layn, who has come to define the sport on campus.
“When you say ‘Layn Pannkuk,’ you think of wrestling,” Olympia coach Greg Hargrave said. “When you say ‘Olympia wrestling’ these days, Layn Pannkuk is the first thing that comes to mind.”
Layn, a senior, is ranked third among 152-pounders in Class 4A with a 29-3 record heading into this weekend’s South Kitsap Invitational. He’s the captain of the boys varsity team and the clear leader of all 53 wrestlers in the program, said Hargrave, who credits Mike and Susan Pannkuk for providing the background for Layn’s success.
“The important thing is to have dedicated parents,” Hargrave said. “They drove him everywhere every weekend. If you don’t have parents like that, you’re not going to get an early start.”
Parents and brothers.
Both Garrett and Layn’s next oldest brother, Wyatt, inspired him to take up wrestling.
“My oldest brother said, ‘You should try this sport, it’s fun,’ ” Layn said. “I went to one practice and got the hang of it pretty quick.”
He tried football, baseball, soccer and tennis, but an early football injury sapped his drive for that sport. During the summer after eighth grade, Layn took advantage of his parents’ willingness to travel. Competing in tournaments throughout Washington, he wanted to be ready when he started high school wrestling at Centralia, where the family lived.
“Freshman year, everything just clicked,” Layn said.
Garrett had reached the state tournament for the Tigers as a sophomore.
“My goal was to beat him, to get to state a year sooner,” Layn said.
Mission semi-accomplished. Layn got to state in the 106-pound division but didn’t place.
“My nerves got the best of me,” he said. “But it was a good learning experience.”
The move to Olympia followed, as did two trips to the podium at the Mat Classic — a seventh-place finish at 126 pounds as a sophomore, followed by fifth at 138 a year ago.
This season he leapfrogged a weight class to move up to 152, where his experience and technique have helped him overcome his lighter weight, usually less than 149 pounds day to day.
“He wanted to enjoy his senior year, have normal meals,” Hargrave said. “He’s been a dedicated wrestler, cutting weight for 10 years. Now he’s the alpha male in the mat room. He’s making everybody else cut weight.”
Though he is state-certified as safe to drop to 145 pounds for the postseason if he decides to, Layn believes he’ll stay at 152, despite some disadvantages.
“Every kid I’ve wrestled this year has probably had double the strength I have,” he said. “The key is my movement and aggressiveness with my hands.”
Layn credits working out with Jimmy Belleville, a four-time state champion for Black Hills from 2006-09, for improving his style of constant motion.
Currently being recruited by Nebraska-Kearney and Dakota Wesleyan, Layn plans to major in physical therapy or athletic training, but a career that keeps him in contact with wrestling is a given.
In addition to competing in freestyle and Greco-Roman tournaments during the high school offseason, Layn coaches youth wrestling and has officiated events as prestigious as the men’s adult Pacific Northwest Regionals.
“Wrestling makes me a better person all around,” he said. “It helps me get my frustration out. I can beat up on guys a little without really hurting them. It keeps me calm.”