By Ben Peterson
Many sports create a means for building up friends while competing with them. It is a very exciting thing to watch two or more wrestlers who are friends wrestle and go all out to beat each other. The same high levels of expertise and enjoyment are seldom reached with competitions of bitter rivals.
Through my 16 years of competitive wrestling I had several wrestlers who became good friends while we trained and competed together. Gary Matthias, Rich Binek, Al Nacin and Russ Hellickson were a few of them. Our friendships developed while we were trying to outdo each other in hard wrestling practices.
When all is said and done, two rose above everyone else in our “friendly” and relentless rivalries. Those were my brother John and Dan Gable. Third was Russ Hellickson who first was a bitter rival. Later we became daily workout partners, World and Olympic teammates, and good friends.
Often I am asked, “Did you and your brother John fight while growing up?”
My response is often, “Well, duh! We were brothers!”
Of course we fought. The usual sibling rivalry was a temptation we fell to. When wrestling became our high school passion we still had that sibling tendency and it did not go away. However, strange factors can, did, and have kept that rivalry in check. Those factors include the following.
Our family farm in northern Wisconsin often left John and me working and playing together. Yes, we had friends at school. But at home, we played a lot with family. There were only a few children of any age that lived closer than a mile and none closer than a quarter-mile. Walking to a neighbor’s house to play may find them gone or doing chores, so we just made our own fun. Our similar ages put us together and we became good workmates and playmates.
We were taught to be honest and forthright in all our playing. Our mother and dad didn’t mind us playing to win. That was encouraged. John and I were very competitive with each other and with others. But we were guided to keep our intense fun safe, fair, and honest.
We saw a strong faith in Christ in our parents. John was first to make that faith his own at age twelve. I saw John’s new purpose and confidence. A couple years later I understood my need to personally accept Christ for salvation. We began to encourage each other to honor and thank the Lord in our daily lives. Soon after we started wrestling we saw others losing their tempers and fighting with each other. We began discussing how that would not honor Christ and fighting would not help our team win. So we began to urge each other to avoid the anger and spite that can cause anyone to vent while intensely doing any sport or task.
These background elements prepared John and me to compete in daily wrestling practice on a level where those watching would often say, “It looks like you two are trying to kill each other.” Our intensity often looked violent. My sarcastic answer has often been, “You are right! I was trying to kill John before he killed me.”
Yet when we were done we caught our breath and then talked and laughed on the way to dinner.
John and I have needed to discuss how to refrain from hitting nasty crossfaces and “cheap shots” to get back at each other. We began to find we could not remember who started it. It just kept escalating. After a while, I learned the best way to get even with John was not another cheap shot, but to get an honest hard takedown or pin. He hated to be scored on. He is my older brother after all.
We learned to take our day’s frustrations out on each other without injuring each other. Come to think of it, John, Dan Gable and I had some of the most intense and nasty wrestling experiences I ever knew. Yet, I only remember one time ever being injured. We knew and trusted each other and therefore were able to “play” the game of wrestling at such a high level it was invigorating. We looked forward to every time we got together to wrestle. We knew it would be hard, it would be demanding, and it would all be legal.
The truth is there is no one I wanted to beat more than John. But there is no one I have wanted to win more than John. And I could say the same about Gable, Hellickson, Matthias, Binek and Nacin. I still ache at the memory of their losses and smile yet today about the wins I saw them achieve.
Through years of coaching I can say it is a great pleasure and a benefit for athletes when they learn to make workout partners, and yes competitors, their friends. When athletes respect each other, they can reach levels of competition otherwise not known. I experienced all the above elements while coaching two-time Olympian Jim Gruenwald and his brother Al. Their daily battles were a pleasure to witness.
Some think wrestling competition requires anger, hatred, and spite to motivate an athlete. I prefer motivating athletes with excellence, intensity, hard work, and doing your best. These qualities will stay with a man all his life and help keep him stable, manly, and appreciated.
I urge all wrestlers to compete in wrestling with increasingly higher levels of intensity and respect. Do it with the best wrestlers you can find. It will be a blast!