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Winning in Losing

We gain so much more when we lose than when we win. Try telling that to your eight or ten-year-old grandson; it is about as welcome to them as hearing there’ll be a test, closed book, on Friday, before Christmas vacation.

They wrestled their hearts out yesterday – both of them. And they wrestled kids who had all been wrestling for two and three years, as opposed to the two or three months of the boys. They fought hard never gave up, and the ten-year-old won a match, convincingly. But both of them left the tournament with nothing more bruised than their egos and their spirit. There were tears upon exiting the mat for both of them at one point or another and that rips at the heart of a grandfather to witness. Words are useless at that moment and words like “we gain so much more when we lose than when we win”; even less so.

But it is true. Not yesterday, not today, and not tomorrow – but one day the lessons about losing they learn from wrestling will prepare them for a difficult life’s moment, and there is no doubt but that it will buoy them for a lifetime. I know that. But they don’t, not yet. And that is so hard. And it made me consider that perhaps life was also teaching me a lesson.

I lost matches during the years I wrestled; nowhere near as many as I won, but I certainly lost some. And I am pretty sure that I remember the losses far better than the wins. In fact, there are two that are etched into my brain for the duration of my time on this earth, while I think I might recall only one win. And that one win is memorable not for the match, but for who was watching.

I am sure dad came to some of my matches in my younger years of wrestling, but I don’t recall. I don’t really recall any of the matches from 6th grade up through probably my junior year – they just all faded into a conglomerate of memories all intertwined to the extent that all detail is lost. But even though I don’t remember, I am sure he came to some matches. But he didn’t come to many my last few years in high school – life was just too tumultuous for him.

He was VP of engineering in a small, but highly profitable, design/build machining company that focused mainly on military applications for the government. But then the owner died and in the resulting chaos, the company was sold to a company in a neighboring state. Dad moved to the new place, but their focus was recreational products and he was misplaced in that job, so he began looking elsewhere. This was around my junior year and was extremely hard on the family, although that was all unspoken. I just know that dad was gone for crazy long hours every day, not that I paid all that much attention. The timeline is a little blurred, but I recall some details. I think he ended up working so far from home during the summer between my junior and senior year that it was too far to drive home each day, so he only came home weekends.

The cost of two residences (coupled with what I am sure was a loss of salary in the new job) meant that money was tight. I worked as the mate on a 40’ sport fishing boat out of the local marina that was owned by a lawyer. He needed a lot of help on the boat and paid me $3/hr. under the table to clean and maintain the boat, as well as to crew for him during weekend trips either fishing or over to the fine restaurants in Newport. I worked a full 40 hours every week – some weeks more. And while $3 doesn’t sound like much, back in 1973 that was real good money for a teenager. And it all went to my folks. I found out later that my money helped keep them financially afloat during that difficult time. As I kid I didn’t need much more than $5 or $10 in a week and the lawyer would often tip me a $10 bill after a long trip out, so I was all set and life was good.

Anyway, during that summer they decided to sell the house I had grown up in and move away. That was a hard slap in the face to me; I had never even thought about ever moving. And I now had an awesome girlfriend here that would soon be almost 40 miles away and that really sucked. We moved in late summer, but even though summer was almost over I still lost out on my last month or so on the boat. They rented a really cool house, built of all stone. The 40 miles from Wickford brought us close enough to his work to allow dad to come home every night, which was nice for him. But he was so very stressed and it was not a pleasant time for any of us.

Just a few months later, he found a job in Erie Pennsylvania. Yes – Erie – some 600 miles away. I was stunned. But that was only the beginning; they told me I would be staying here in RI; they had made arrangements for me to live with a classmate so I could complete my senior year (that for another story). They ended up leaving for Pennsylvania in mid-February. I had already moved into my friend’s house by the time they climbed into the car and headed off. In fact (to finally get back on point) the day they were headed off on the 10-hour drive, I was not even in RI; I was in in CT at a wrestling tournament.

I was preparing for my 3rd match when I heard a familiar voice – it was dad. There is no highway here in RI to head west to PA, so you have to either go north to MA or south to CT; he chose the route in CT so he could make a fast stop to see me wrestle. To this day I have no idea where mom and my brothers were; either sitting in the parking lot with the dog and all their stuff. Or maybe they drove both cars out there and she had my brothers and just kept driving. I never did ask and to this day don’t know the answer.

But to see him there was electrifying for me. As much as we fought through my teenage years and as miserable as our relationship often was, he was my dad and though I didn’t admit it often, to me he wore the cape of a super hero. We had left RI for the tournament at something like 5AM and I knew it was the day they were leaving RI forever, so I was not in the best of moods that day. I felt a bit of a hole at being left alone (family-wise) and I really wasn’t feeling much like wrestling. But I was seeded fairly high and had readily won my first two matches. I knew nothing about the kid I was to wrestle next, but it really didn’t matter to me; each match is unique and you don’t know how it will go until you get out there and make first contact.

But when I saw dad there just before the match, I was suddenly pumped. I ran out on the mat and absolutely dominated the kid, quickly pinning him with an obscure move called a stack. It was a great bout for me and I was delighted to show off for my dad. But just as suddenly as he was there, he was gone, back on the road. An hour or so later I wrestled in the semi-finals and were I to choose an adjective, lethargic might be the one…. or listless; uninspired; dispirited. I lost. (Truthfully, I won – I was winning on point near the end of the last period and there was an insane scramble in which I used a switch for a reversal. During the move, my back ended up parallel and close to the mat – an integral part of the maneuver – and the ref awarded him five points for back exposure and near fall and only gave me two for the reversal. My coach went crazy, as did many others watching, but the ref held fast to his call and I ended up losing by a point.)

So, I went to the consolation round where I won third place. The kid that got the gift in the semi’s and beat me, went on to win the tournament. So yeah – you remember the losses more than the wins, but for this one tournament I remember both a win and a loss. Funny thing is that I still remember the name of the kid that I lost to in that semi-final match, but not the names of any of the kids I beat that day.

The wrestling career of papa is over, long over, as is my son’s; but the boys’ is (hopefully) just beginning. What is hard for them is that there are youth wrestling clubs everywhere now, so kids who wrestle typically start at age five or six, as opposed to my grandsons who are beginning at eight and ten. Truthfully, if they stay with it, the younger will ultimately hold an advantage as he started at a younger age.

But right now, it is the older one who has the advantage; at ten he is more advanced in strength, muscle mass, coordination, and all the other physical characteristics that the sport demands. That is just a function of age. But through their childhoods, he has always been a bit more athletic than his younger brother – just how the genes shook things out – he’s had an arm like a cannon since he was two or three for example. And he has won a couple of his matches, which always helps fortify the reason for pursuing the sport: winning is fun and rewarding and as such, provides motivation to continue to chase it.

But the younger has not won a match yet, and I fear he may grow discouraged. He is as resilient as the finest pink rubber ball (only the older folks will truly connect to this reference, although I think the reminiscing of boomers has brought them back to at least a limited market). He bounces back beautifully and completely from everything that gets thrown at him. But he needs a win to keep the fire fueled. He is also a gentle soul and lacks the controlled rage that needs to be lit in a wrestling match. So I hope he stays with it through the years, but fear he may get discouraged.

You can lose in every sport of course – anything in which points are tallied results in winners and losers. But wrestling is somewhat unique in that you are alone out there. In many other sports, you are out there surrounded by teammates: soccer, football, baseball, basketball, and hockey are all examples. You win and lose as a team. Certainly, a singular hero or goat can arise in a team sport given a particularly spectacular or horrible play by one player – Bill Buckner’s muffed ground ball in the World Series Game 6 comes to mind and it haunted him the rest of his career. And certainly, Franco Harris and the immaculate reception on the hero side. But for the most part an individual does not stand out much in a team sport. But in wrestling, it is you alone out there on the big mat with no one else except your opponent. And losing out there, alone, is difficult; losing by getting pinned even more so.

And man alive, do you ever learn from losing in that manner. You learn humility and humbleness; dignity in defeat. You have no choice. Sure, many kids left the mats yesterday with tears in their eyes, my two included, and that is nothing more than a reflection of their intensity and passion. But the lesson is learned none the less; invisibly and unconsciously they are learning how to lose. The prescribed steps of the sport dictate that. At the conclusion of every match, the wrestlers are required to return to the center circle, face each other and shake hands, then remove their color-coded anklets (used for scoring) and place them back on the spot on the mat, and then to go shake hands with the opponent’s coach; all this before they can run off the mat to either celebrate or commiserate. If you want to wail to the world, going through this routine after every match delays that, retards it enough that the intensity of the moment diminishes ever so slightly. They learn to continue life despite their pain and disappointment and that is a significant part of why I so love the sport.

But as a grandfather, I do not enjoy watching my boys go through it; watching them lose is very hard on me because I love them so. I absolutely could not care less if they ever win a match – their success in wrestling matters not at all to me, aside from relishing their personal joy in it. I want them happy, not sad. When I watch them fight so hard and lose, and I see the pain and unhappiness in their face, it pains me terribly. I certainly never liked losing, but me losing pales by comparison to watching them lose.

And it was the same with my son when he wrestled; I was an animal in the stands screaming and acting out every move I felt he needed to use to win because I hated the disappointment in his face if he didn’t win. However, despite the discomfort, deep inside I know how valuable these moments are in developing the depth of character I wish for them as men.

There are those who say you should never accept defeat. I get the concept and agree with the philosophy – never give up, never stop trying – truly an adage by which to live. But defeat will come; we all lose at some point. I don’t mean that we should like it, but we need to know that we will lose and we need to know how to lose – without being a total jerk about it. Losing graceful and with dignity is not weak and is not undesirable; it shows tremendous character and inner strength. And that is a lesson we can all embrace, dear reader, regardless of whether we are ten or seventy, playing sports or competing for a business deal, or merely driving down the road.

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