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Wrestling Practice

After classes were over, Craig had a 30 minute window before he needed to be suited up for wrestling practice. As a senior he was given no special consideration for a spot on the varsity bench, so the practice before every meet he had to wrestle off against two of his teammates in the same weight class. Craig had won the spot for the last meet against St. Thomas, right before winter break. The Thomas squad was small, and had to forfeit three spots. It was a complete shut out. Craig pinned in the second, tossing his opponent over his hip and landing him in a head lock for the win. It had been a great way to leave for the holidays.

However, Craig had opted out of the winter camp opportunities over break, much to the chagrin of the coach and the more serious boys on the squad who had aspirations of wrestling in college. Craig knew that his edge had been dulled. He had lost conditioning and had put on an extra few pounds. Nothing that wouldn’t take care of itself in due time, but he knew that his wrestling partner, Matt, had gone to winter camp in New Jersey, where his family lived. Matt was one year Craig’s junior and had been chasing him all season. Even though Craig knew that he hadn’t made any real effort to stay in shape over break, he had a sinking feeling that Matt would take his spot for the rest of the season, and into the spring tournaments. As a senior, Craig had a vision of himself winning most of his last matches and going out on a high note. Now, he feared that hanging out with Randy and all those Tornado Burgers were going to catch up with him.

By 3:15, the team was warming up Cabot Gymnasium, which had been the basketball auditorium for most of the 20th century. During practice, they kept the thermostat cranked up all the way, and the sweaty, huffing bodies of 40 teenage boys exercising hard quickly turned the room into a sweat lodge. Most of the year, Cabot was empty of activity, the basketball backboards having been taken down long ago. But in the winter, the sleepy gym came alive with the beating hearts of youthful energy. The wrestlers were fond of the high rafters and the clanging radiators and the old basketball gym smell of floor wax and sweat. They were proud to work out in one of the oldest building on campus while their peers enjoyed more modern facilities. On the entrance doors they hung a sign: Here There be Dragons.

Cabot gym was a wild territory that housed wild men. At the beginning of every season, the team pulled the mats out of storage and threw the scrawniest wrestlers on top as the rest lifted the long foam logs, four feet in diameter, twenty feet long, and carried them across campus to their winter home. The procession was an important ritual and Craig had marked his personal calendar with the event over his four winters at Standish, his four seasons wrestling, two of which earned him varsity letters so far.

Wrestlers were decidedly different from the other boys at school. Craig liked that and he liked being a part of that. The hockey and basketball jocks and the dainty squash players regarded the wrestlers, who often sat together at their own table, as more than a little off. And the girls flat out didn’t get it, like comic books or Star Wars. The wrestling program led by the adored coach, Leo, cultivated a Spartan pride. Leo, who was short and brutally strong gave a pep talk at the start of every season, aimed at the newest recruits. “You have to be a little weird to show up here every day and work yourself harder than you’ve ever worked before, but in the end it will be worth it. There will be times you want to quit, and your personal test will be whether or not you make that decision.” The Standish squad was known in their region as one of the best, and the wrestlers were proud to be the most hard core winter sport at Standish.

Craig had mixed emotions while he followed the warm up drill, running with the team around the room, jumping, rolling, sprinting, crab crawling. When they had worked up a good sweat, the captains circled them up around the ring and began the stretching routine, and Leo looked at his clipboard and called the first wrestlers to center. Between stretching calves and hamstrings, Craig watched Matt wrestle Ross, another senior who Craig was friendly with, and who had won the varsity spot for much of the first part of the season. Craig had noticed how Ross’s attitude changed as college decisions came in. Once Ross was accepted early decision to Yale it seemed as if not much else mattered anymore. So it was not a big surprise when Ross lost to Matt by points. He hadn’t been fighting with any heart. Craig watched the last part of the third period upside down in a bridge stretch, rolling out his neck on the mat, nose to the back of the head, and ear to ear.

Craig leaped to his feet when he was called to the ring and shook hands with Matt, who was red around the biceps and sweating. He decided his plan would be to bait Matt into taking shots so that he could sprawl out on him, wearing him down and tiring him out further, until an opportunity presented itself. Leo blew the whistle and immediately Matt took a shot, going for the legs faster than Craig could react. Matt came up holding Craig’s right calf and he found himself scrambling, hopping on one foot, trying to pull loose, but Matt wouldn’t let him go and was maneuvering him into a position for a fall. Matt jerked Craig towards him by the leg, and as Craig hopped, Matt pushed him backwards hard. They went to the ground and Craig spent the rest of the first period trying to escape as Matt rode him, wearing HIM out. Not the way it was supposed to go, Craig hissed to himself as they set up for the second period.

Craig started on the bottom, on all fours, and Matt assumed his position slowly. Craig stared straight ahead, visualizing his escape as he felt Matt take hold of his left elbow in one hand and place his palm on his belly with the other. When the whistle blew, Craig leapt forward, raising his hand and standing, but Matt had grabbed an ankle and was ramming his knee into Craig’s backside, pushing him forward. They collapsed on the ground and Craig scrambled to sit through and escape, but his weight was not forward enough, and the next thing he knew, he was being stretched out on the ground with Matt’s legs hooked around his and a painful submission he’d never experienced before was forcing him into a pin. The whistle blew the final time and Leo called the match. Craig got to his feet and shook Matt’s hand. The kid was grinning like an idiot, he was so happy to have won the spot. “Good match, man,” Craig said, and Leo lifted Matt’s hand high.

He felt bad about the loss, but he comforted himself with the knowledge that he could eat whatever he wanted for dinner that night, and wouldn’t have to weigh in at 7:00am. They practiced hard for another two hours and long after the short winter sun had gone down, Leo gathered the squad into a tight knot around the varsity lineup for a quick pep talk. Practice ended with a brief cheer, the water boy already gathering the med kit and his homework. Craig followed his teammates down a narrow staircase to the locker room to shower and change.

He was tired even though he hadn’t given 100% that practice. Their conditioning and drills were exhausting, and his hair was wet with perspiration as he removed his headgear. The locker room was stripped down to the bare essentials. Concrete floors. Wooden plank benches. Dented metal lockers that smelled of jock straps and Ben Gay. An antique Hobart scale with an enormous face bigger than the trays the student waiters carried during sit-down dinner. The communal showers were across the hall and already the steam was tumbling out. Craig’s locker was next to Matt’s. He found him sitting on the bench, stripped down to his shorts and untying his high top wrestling shoes.

“That was a pretty sick move, man,” Craig said, clapping him on the back. “You learn that at camp?”

Matt looked over his shoulder and cracked a wide grin. “Pretty sweet, right?”

“Yeah, I didn’t even know what was coming. I bet you’re going to do well tomorrow.” Craig stripped down and hung his clothes up on the hooks in his locker.

Matt shrugged. “Enjoy your supper, brother. I’ve got some weight to cut, myself. Too many Christmas leftovers, you know?”

Craig nodded, feeling another sharp pang of remorse that Matt had taken his spot. “I know the feeling,” he said, slapping his abs. He felt another sting when he realized he did not need to get in line behind the other naked boys to check his weight before going to dinner.

On the way out, Craig walked with Ross, steam wafting from their damp hair as they crunched along a cement path. The main building was outlined in dark blue sky just beginning to show some stars, and the warm yellow lights spilling from the tall dining hall windows were more than inviting. The night air was crispy cold and a bit shocking compared to the warmth of Cabot. “I’m kind of glad he kicked our asses,” Ross said.

“Me too,” Craig admitted. “I think I’m kind of over wrestling.”

Ross chuckled. “Get on board, Craigo and leave it to the young’uns. You still planning on flying for your spring sport?” They approached a door to enter the main building and Ross stepped forward to open it. “After you, sir.”

“I am. I went out during lunch today.”

“You know if you don’t go to the tournaments, you’ll get back in the air all that much sooner. Chin up, man. Today was a good day. They got chicken nuggets for dinner!”

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