By Sam Shames
When the national anthem finished playing, and the applause died down, the magnitude of the moment finally struck me. The next seven minutes would decide whether I finished the season as 125-pound national champion or runner-up.
My opponent was a wrestler from Cal Baptist, the very same wrestler who had defeated me in the national tournament the previous year. I had been dreaming about a rematch ever since. Now I had a chance to avenge a loss and become a national champion.
There was just one problem. I wasn’t ready.
My opponent was, and after three periods of trying to break each other’s will, it was his hand that the referee raised. I saw on his face the look of triumph that I had dreamed winning a national title would bring. In my dreams, though, I was always the one celebrating.
All I could do now was look my opponent in the eye and shake his hand. Then, I walked slowly off the mat, carrying the weight of my disappointment.
Disappointment and frustration greet everyone who has ever tried wrestling. Even Olympic medalists get tossed around when they first start; taking your lumps before you begin to succeed is the nature of the sport.
My first exposure to wrestling came in the sixth grade. My older brother, a freshman in high school, had recently joined the wrestling team and insisted on practicing what he had learned on me each night. “Practice” consisted of him trying out all the different painful moves he had learned, using me as the dummy. I quickly realized that the best thing I could do to protect myself was to learn some wrestling moves of my own.
I started going to open mats, run by my brother’s high school coach, Coach Staulo. I learned the most basic wrestling technique: a wrestling stance and a few moves. A few months after I began going to open mats, my brother told me about a local tournament he was attending that had a youth division.
A small kid, I signed up to wrestle in the 68-pound weight class. When we arrived at the tournament, we discovered that there was no one else in my weight class. There was, however, someone in the 78-pound weight class. The tournament director asked my brother, dad, and Coach Staulo if I wanted to wrestle a best of three series of exhibitions with him.
When the time came for the exhibition and I saw my opponent, I got scared. It wasn’t the weight; being outweighed by 15% of my body weight didn’t scare me, but my opponent’s singlet did. He was wearing the official wrestling uniform, the same one that my older brother and the varsity wrestlers in high school used. All I had were shorts, a t-shirt, and an old pair of wrestling shoes two sizes too large that Coach Staulo had lent me that morning.
My opponent must have sensed my fear and was the aggressor for the entire time. The sport of wrestling requires determination, grit, and pride. A wrestling match is about control; the dominant wrestler imposes his will on his opponent and tries to break his spirit: driving him to the point where he quits mentally and gives up physically. That day, my opponent broke me.
I got pinned two matches in a row. I felt a sense of helplessness, that nothing I did could stop my opponent’s moves. After I lost I was so ashamed that I told my dad and brother that the reason the kid had won was because he had bitten me. Later that day, when my best friend asked me how the tournament had gone, I lied to him and told him I had won a match. I wouldn’t have an opportunity to compete again for two years.
Despite how bad I felt about losing, I wasn’t deterred from wrestling. I quickly forgot how upset I felt after the loss and was back wrestling at open mats the very next week. It was too much fun to stop. Over the next two years, I wrestled every week, both at open mats and at home with my brother. I was beginning to fall in love with the sport.
By the time eighth grade rolled around, my brother suggested I do another tournament. This time I would actually belong in the 78-pound weight class. There were five other kids in the weight class with me. The format of the tournament would be round robin, with each wrestler wrestling one match against everyone else.
Warming up before my first match, I was hyper aware of everything around me. I heard the whistles from the other matches, the screams of triumph and despair from parents watching their children compete, and I saw my opponent trying to stare me down from across the mat. But when the whistle blew for the start of my match, the outside world faded away. Wrestling took center stage.
I took control of the match: shooting in on my opponent’s legs and securing a takedown. I crunched my opponent’s head and knee together, locking up a move called a cradle. I heard the referee’s hand slap the mat. It meant only one thing: I had pinned my opponent. My brother tells me that the look on my face after that match was brighter than the neon green shoes my opponent wore. But he was also careful to warn me not to get too caught up in this victory; I still had four more matches to wrestle.
I won those next four matches, pinning every opponent. It wasn’t until we were getting our medals that I found out that everyone else in the 78-pound weight class was in the sixth grade. I didn’t care. This was my moment.
For the first time in my life, I had won something entirely on my own. This victory provided a completely different feeling than the victories I’d experienced on team sports. In basketball, baseball, and soccer, I was always one of the worst people on the team, and never felt like I contributed anything to my team’s victories. Wrestling was different. I was alone on the mat, and I had earned those five wins. I swelled with pride as I got my medal, amazed at my accomplishment. I was hungry for more.
When high school began, with the memory of my eighth grade success still in my head, I was confident and excited about my prospects for the upcoming wrestling season. My older brother was a senior and one of the team captains. As his younger brother, I had a lot to live up to. My goals for the season were to wrestle varsity and to qualify for the state tournament. I felt I was ready to compete at the high school level, but my freshman year I learned how far I still had to go.
My first eye-opener came the first day of practice. Going from the intensity of the open mats to the intensity of a high school practice was like going from the kiddie pool to shark-infested waters. When we ran sprints and did conditioning, my heart would pound so fast it felt like a drum roll in my chest. I was so tired after those practices that I used to chug two pints of water and then go home and be too sore to move. When practice got really tough, I would wring out the sweat from my shirt like a soaked sponge.
In the annual cross-town rivalry match against Newton South, I wrestled the number three ranked wrestler in the state. I weighed 88 pounds. He weighed 103, but with muscles and a tattoo. He used his muscles to dominate me, scoring three takedowns before pinning me, in just 22 seconds. I barely had time to register what had happened. He didn’t even look like he was trying. The message had sunk in. I knew I was mediocre.
A month after that match, I broke my thumb in practice and had to miss the rest of the season. My season record was 5–7. The Newton South wrestler went on to win the New England tournament — as a freshman.
Although my season ended in January, for the cream of the crop, the wrestling season continues all through the month of February. The third weekend in February is the All-State Tournament. My brother and the rest of the seniors on the team decided to go and watch the All-State finals. They invited me to come along.
When we walked into the gymnasium at Salem High School, the first thing that caught my eye was the lone black mat in the center of the floor. Wooden bleachers, filled to capacity, surrounded the mat. The wrestling scent, bleach and sweat, filled the air. Everyone was a die-hard fan, willing to endure eight hours without back support or natural lighting to get the best seats.
From our seats at the top of the bleachers, I could see the whole gym. I watched the finalists warming up. They paired together, drilling the wrestling moves they would use in just a few minutes. Their movements were crisp and controlled, polished from years of practice. I always got visibly nervous before a match, but these guys appeared calm and collected. The conversations around me died down. “Let’s get ready to wrestle!” boomed out of the PA system.
Seeing the best up close, I noticed for the first time exactly what they did differently. They flowed, transitioning smoothly from one move to the next, without giving their opponents time to react. Chain wrestling. I watched one wrestler go from a double leg takedown directly into a perfectly timed cradle. The champions scored points in bunches, two points for a takedown followed immediately by two more for exposing their opponents back. Another point for an escape, and another two for a second takedown. Their pace felt like watching in fast forward.
For the champions, each match was life or death. They were sharks and smelled their opponent’s blood. For all six minutes, the champions were relentless, driving their opponents to the breaking point. They could even anticipate exactly how their opponents would react and use their reaction against them. I recognized the exact point in the match when their opponents broke; you could see it in the way their wrestling stance changed, and in the look of dread that crossed their faces.
What I saw inspired me. I told myself that one day I would be on that stage, standing on the podium as an All-State Champion. I had a long way to go, and it would not be an easy journey. But the looks of satisfaction I saw on those 14 wrestlers that night as they got their hands raised sent a clear message.
I started wrestling again almost immediately after watching the All-State Finals. To become a champion, I needed to fill the huge gap between where I was and where the champions were. I was ready to dive in.
All throughout my freshman spring, I wrestled three days a week. When the summer rolled around, I signed up for a two-week wrestling camp at Boston University.
The wrestling camp was a gathering of wrestlers from all over the country, along with some of the best coaches in the world. There were All-Americans, National Champions, and Olympic medalists. Everywhere I looked I marveled at the quality of wrestling. I just tried to soak it all in and not look foolish; with over six hours of wrestling every day, the former was easier than the latter.
During those two weeks, I learned new techniques and drills for all three positions in wrestling, top, bottom, and neutral. From the neutral position, I drilled takedowns and sprawls, slamming my hips on the mat to defend my opponent’s offense. In the bottom position, I practiced stand ups, exploding to my feet to earn a one point escape. On top, I learned different techniques to expose my opponent’s back, earning me back points. I worked with the coaches to develop new strategies and discuss the advantages of selecting the bottom position in one situation versus the neutral position in another. At the suggestion of one of the National Champions, I started keeping a notebook with all my favorite new techniques. By the time the two weeks were over, I had a notebook full of new moves and an increased appetite and enthusiasm for all things wrestling.
When I returned home, I started training with one of our assistant coaches, Coach Jordan. Coach Jordan was old school. He spoke with a thick Boston accent and took no bullshit. The key to wrestling, he said, was physicality. It seemed fitting coming from a guy who curled 100 pounds in each arm and had a bulldog that weighed more than I did. Coach Jordan taught me to be tough. His favorite teaching tool was pain. Laziness earned you a sharp jab to the ribs. But behind every bruise was an accompanying new technique. I knew everything he was doing was to make me a better wrestler. Tough love.
Practices with Jordan began by running up and down five flights of stairs 10 times, followed by push-ups, sit-ups, leg lifts, spin drills, and sprawls. And that was just the warm up. Jordan had us wrestle blindfolded to improve balance and timing, practice explosiveness by drilling stand-ups while holding 45 pound dumbbells, and practice attacking the head by trying to snap each others faces into the mat. By the end of a practice, my neck would be so sore I could barely hold my head up.
Jordan taught me a move called a leg roll, his secret weapon. He had used it when he was in high school to win sectionals, and no one else knew about it. The leg roll is the ultimate game changer. Beginning on your butt with your opponent trying to drive you onto your back, you kick out his legs and rainbow your legs over him, finishing on top of your opponent pinning him. To hit it correctly requires perfect coordination between arms and legs and perfect timing in the match. Coach Jordan and I spent hours drilling the leg roll, doing circles on my butt around the mat as I struggled with the timing.
Workouts with Jordan continued through the fall. We decided to get “Trained by Jordan” t-shirts. We put a picture of Csonka, his 120-pound bulldog, on the front of the shirt. Sophomore year I started wearing that t-shirt to every competition, a tradition that I continue to this day.
Right before the season began, I reflected on the hard work that I had done and the progress that I had made. Besides improving my technique, I had grown too and had broken 100 pounds. I thought about my goals. On a piece of paper I wrote down what I wanted to accomplish during my remaining three seasons. SECTIONAL CHAMPION. DIVISIONAL STATE CHAMPION. ALL-STATE CHAMPION. NEW ENGLAND CHAMPION. I hung the piece of paper up in my room where I would see it every day.
I saw my hard work pay off immediately when my sophomore season began. My teammate who had beaten me the previous year no longer posed a challenge to me. When our first competition arrived, my progress became even clearer. I was pinning opponents who had beaten me the previous year. My first victory ignited a sense of pride that only wrestling gave me. This time, though, the feeling was intensified 100 fold by all the effort I had invested during the off-season.
My success continued all season long. I placed fourth at the 60-team Lowell Holiday tournament, the largest wrestling tournament in New England, and even won a few smaller tournaments. I saw myself making continuous improvements. My success inspired me, confirming the value of the energy I invested.
By February, I was dreaming about wrestling in Salem at the All-State Finals. I imagined getting my hand raised and sprinting over to hug my coaches. During the first round of the postseason, the sectional tournament, I upset the number one seeded wrestler in the finals. My opponent, a wrestler from Framingham, had not only beaten me earlier in the season, but was also ranked number one in the state at our weight class. After that win my confidence was at an all time high and my imagination went wild.
The Divisional State Tournament was next.
When the brackets for the Divisional State Tournament were released, I saw I had a huge opportunity. Slotted as the number three seed, if I made it to the semi-finals, I would get a rematch against a wrestler from New Bedford, the very same wrestler who had handed me my worst loss of the season, a 10–2 beat-down only three weeks prior. Fresh from my rematch with the Framingham wrestler, I was ready to even the score.
The semi-finals take place the second morning of the tournament. The New Bedford wrestler and I both won our first two matches, setting the stage for the battle to come. This time, I swore, the outcome would be different.
When the whistle blew, I came out with an intensity my opponent could not match. I seized control, securing a first, then a second, takedown. When the first period ended, I had a 4–1 lead. My opponent chose to start the second period in the bottom position, but I controlled the tempo. I countered his every maneuver, preventing him from escaping. Two minutes later when the second period ended, the score still read 4–1.
At this point, it dawned on me that I was two minutes away from going to the Divisional State Finals. All I needed to do was hang on. I selected the neutral position for the third period, in the hopes that I could score another takedown. But when the referee blew the whistle, I just stood there. Instead of controlling the pace, I waited for my opponent to make his move.
Sensing a change in my style, the New Bedford wrestler intensified his attack, securing a takedown, making the score 4–3. I still had the lead, but I couldn’t give up any back points. No sooner had the thought crossed my mind when I saw the referee signal two points for my opponent, back points. When the final whistle blew two minutes later, I looked up and saw the score. 7–4. I was stunned.
I walked directly off the mat, past my coaches and my dad. I did the only thing that seemed appropriate after a loss of such magnitude, the same thing I had seen countless other wrestlers in my position do. I went under the bleachers to be alone.
In the comfort of the darkness, I felt the pain and anger pulse through my body. My stomach dropped like a pair of shoes off the bleachers. Everything that had seemed so clear before — that the effort was worthwhile, that my sacrifices would pay off — was suddenly cast into doubt. The loss shook my beliefs, cracking their foundation with the force of an earthquake.
I thought about my weekends spent at wrestling tournaments, the two weeks at wrestling camp, the cupcakes and pizza I’d passed up as I struggled to make weight. I’d invested more energy and effort into wrestling than anything else in my life. And now, at the time when I was supposed to get the biggest payback for my commitment, I got nothing. Just sorrow, disappointment, and despair.
Gone from my mind were all the memories of the joy that wrestling gave me, the feeling of accomplishment that comes after a hard practice, the unparalleled satisfaction that only winning a tough match can provide. I began to doubt whether any reward could be worth how I felt now. I was ready to quit.
I couldn’t though. I wasn’t ready to give up on my dream, and I damn sure wasn’t a quitter. I had never quit anything in my life. And here I was thinking of quitting wrestling, something I loved. I refused to let it end like this.
Once I knew I wasn’t quitting, I saw the way forward. First, I had to accept that I was responsible for the loss, that I had cost myself a trip to the state finals because I stopped wrestling in the third period. Then, I had to make a commitment to work harder. Yes, I had invested more effort into wrestling that anything else in my life, but the lesson I took away from that loss is that it wasn’t enough. If I wanted to become an All-State Champion, I would have to do more.
I imagined getting another rematch against the New Bedford wrestler and winning. Having come back from the bottom, that win would be the most satisfying of my career. That spark pulsed through my body and lit a smile on my face. The thought of winning that rematch ensured my resolve. I knew the feeling I would get after beating the New Bedford wrestler would far outweigh the extra effort it would take. Having suffered such a tough loss would only make my future victories even sweeter.
With these thoughts running through my head, I emerged from the bleachers, with my head held high, ready to keep battling.
I fought back that tournament and finished third. The next weekend at All-States, down by five points in the quarterfinals, I hit the leg roll perfectly for the first time and broke my opponent. In my next match, the semi-finals, I got my rematch against the New Bedford wrestler. I lost yet again. This time, though, I didn’t need the bleachers. Using the lessons I learned the previous week, I was able to accept the loss and move on. My season ended a week later at the New England tournament. In my second match, another rematch, I blew a seven-point lead. That opponent went on to finish second in New England. I finished fifth. After my last match, I thought about all I had accomplished that year and felt proud. More important than my success, though, was the lesson I learned. That lesson would be the defining influence on my life on the mat for the next two years.
During my junior and senior seasons, I realized what I learned at the Divisional State Tournament was about delayed gratification. I had learned that the harder you have to work for something, the more meaningful it becomes. On the wrestling mat, extra effort invested after a tough loss is always rewarded. I learned this during the most important matches of my high school career. They were all rematches.
My junior year, wrestling at 103 pounds, I made it all the way to the All-State finals where I faced a wrestler from East Longmeadow who had just beaten me the previous week in a double overtime thriller in the Divisional State Finals.
All week long in practice, I used my disappointment to motivate me, channeling my frustration into my workouts, pushing myself past the point of exhaustion, to the point where the body says stop and the mind takes over.
That weekend, I beat the East Longmeadow wrestler in the All-State finals in another double overtime match. My winning move was a perfectly timed leg roll. The crowd went silent as I rolled my opponent to his back. I felt his spirit snap.
When the referee raised my hand after the match, I was in awe. What had once been a dream, writing on a piece of paper posted in my room, was now a reality. Having come so close the previous year and having lost to the New Bedford wrestler made this moment all the more satisfying.
My senior year, I made it to the All-State Finals at 112 pounds. I faced an opponent from Central Catholic. He had beaten me at the Lowell Holiday tournament earlier in the season. That loss had haunted me since, driving me to wait outside the YMCA on New Year’s Day so I could be the first one inside to work out.
When the match began, I set the tone and quickly secured a takedown. My opponent came back strong, though, and the match came down to the wire. With seconds left, I was clinging to his leg from the top position. The final score was 5–4. Afterwards, I was so amped that I could have sprinted a mile. The Lowell Tournament felt like another era.
The pinnacle came the following week at the New England tournament. On my way to becoming the first New England Champion in my school’s history, I won two rematches, the first against a Cumberland wrestler who had defeated me the previous year at the New England Tournament and the second against a wrestler from Lowell.
I had envisioned a rematch against the Cumberland wrestler since the end of our last match. I couldn’t celebrate after beating him, though, because I still had to wrestle two more matches. I did, however, celebrate after defeating the Lowell wrestler in the finals. I raced over to Coach Staulo and gave him the biggest hug I could muster. He lifted me up off the ground.
Standing atop the podium, holding the plaque I had won, I got a full sense of perspective. I saw the 88-pound freshman who watched the All-State finals and had a dream of becoming a champion. I saw the piece of paper hanging in my room, now with every goal checked off. I saw the nights spent practicing, the mornings spent running, the days and weekends spent at wrestling tournaments. I felt the pain of a tough loss. All the ups and downs were worth where they had carried me. I wore the winner’s smile, the face of accomplishment that had inspired me to become a champion.
Standing atop the podium at Nationals, I couldn’t bring myself to smile. I was right beside the Cal Baptist wrestler, and he wore the face of triumph.
To have come so close to a national title and to have fallen short was heartbreaking. But I have delayed gratification. I know that having come so close and fallen short, and having to work harder, will only make my future successes more satisfying. It’s worth the extra effort, and it’s always worth the wait.
Sam Shames is an MIT student (class of 2014) studying materials science and engineering with a minor in energy studies. He is a captain of the MIT wrestling team and a 2013 NCWA National Champion at 125 pounds, as well as a three time NCWA All-American. He wrestled for Newton North High School from 2006–2010, where he was the first New England Champion in school history and finished with a career record of 150–19.