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By Mike Finn
The best part of sports is that win or lose, there is always a tomorrow, another great athlete, another great moment. Unfortunately, there are certain levels of amateur wrestling in the U.S. which are not doing well.
I’m not trying to be a doom-and-gloom guy, but there have been signs recently that the future of the sport is in trouble … and not just on the college level in California, where the number of Division I programs — in a state that produces the most high school wrestlers in the U.S. — is down to four as Cal-State Fullerton holds on to dear life.
Fortunately, high school wrestling numbers continue to rise. According to the NWCA, 272,890 wrestlers competed in 2009-10, which is up by over 5,000 high school wrestlers from a year earlier.
Unfortunately, I wonder if the wrestling community does a good enough job of letting the rest of the sporting world know who these kids are.
Recently, I opened an issue of Sports Illustrated (Aug. 2, 2010) that looked back at past athletes and also suggested young athletes fans should keep an eye on for the future.
There was a male basketball player, a football player, a female tennis player, two baseball players, a female pool diver, a snowboarder, two soccer players, a male gymnast, a female golfer, a softball player, a hockey player, a long-distance runner, a wakeboarder and even an auto racer.
There was not one wrestler.
I know SI has never done a great job of showcasing wrestling, but it should also be noted that the national magazine … or at least its website … recently ran a story about how a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) group sponsored an event to help raise money for Cal Poly, which also is facing financial problems as well.
What made that story unique is that apparently the MMA community is wondering if there will be enough wrestlers to eventually compete in MMA considering wrestlers have fared the best in Octagons. And let’s face it, veteran wrestlers are turning their backs on Olympic or World medals for bigger paydays in MMA.
Another reason why it is hard to look down the road at promising young wrestlers is that the lifespan in the sport is very short after high school.
All I have to do is think of Dustin Schlatter, the former high school great, who opened his college career by winning an NCAA championship as a true freshman at Minnesota in 2006. Sadly, he ended his career last March being carried off the mat after re-injuring a knee during a first-round match at the national tournament.
This makes me wonder about today’s young stars who could have been listed in Sports Illustrated’s look at the future … like Ohioan Logan Stieber who was featured with his brother, Hunter, on the cover of ESPN’s Rise magazine or the Alton brothers, Andrew and Dylan, who are entering their first year at Penn State with dreams beyond NCAA championships.
Wrestling traditionalists will say what’s the big deal in a sport where cauliflower ears are a badge of courage and only the strong survive.
That attitude has to change.
I will always believe that wrestlers are the toughest athletes in sports. But let’s give them a chance to enjoy the sport beyond their 21st birthday by avoiding burn-out from starting at such a young age and changing the rules where defensive diving leads to leg injuries.
It’s time for the wrestling community to look at improving a sport that helps its athletes compete in any endeavor they face once they leave the mat.
If we want the mainstream media and fans to appreciate wrestling like we do, let’s make wrestling a mainstream sport, not an extreme sport.