For young kids growing up playing sports, a sandlot isn’t just a sandlot.
It’s Yankee Stadium during Game 7 of the World Series. A quarterback isn’t just flinging balls in a Pop Warner game. He’s throwing the game-winning touchdown pass in the Super Bowl.
Dreams like these are natural for aspiring athletes. Who hasn’t stood in their driveway, looked up at the hoop on the garage and imagined draining the go-ahead shot at the buzzer?
For young wrestlers, these dreams are a little different but no less inspiring. They see themselves on the mat during the Olympics, winning the gold-medal match and feeling the admiration of an entire country wash over them.
There can be no better feeling.
So when the International Olympic Committee made the decision in February to drop wrestling starting with the 2020 Games, it shook the sport’s community to its core. The reactions were swift and emotional, with various figures calling the ruling “mind-boggling,” “devastating,” and even plain “stupid.”
But the sport also showed its resiliency, quickly working to alter its fate. Countries banded together in a show of solidarity, changes were made to make matches more compelling and seven months later, wrestling was reinstated.
It’s impossible to tell what kind of impact the process will have on wrestling’s future, but for the many young kids dreaming of one day representing their country on the mat, that hope is still alive.
And for the handful of high-school wrestlers in Arizona with Olympic aspirations, they can continue developing with the knowledge that the possibility is still there.
“When you have a young kid who’s very competitive,” Avondale Westview coach Matt Macomber said, “you always want there to be a higher plateau for them to achieve — whether they’re playing basketball, whether they’re playing music, whether they’re acting, whatever it happens to be that they pursue.
“If you take away that plateau, it kind of diminishes the effort they’re putting into it because they won’t get to that next level. I think having that final tier is going to be a motivating force.”
Macomber has two wrestlers — seniors Kordell Provchy and Richard Miranda III — who have expressed a desire to compete in the Olympics. Others in Arizona, such as San Tan Valley Combs junior Ted Rico and Camp Verde junior Ryan Allred, also could find themselves there one day.
For a few nervous months, however, that wasn’t the case. And for talented multi-sport athletes like Provchy, who also plays quarterback on the football team and has yet to determine which sport is his calling, the permanent elimination of wrestling from the Olympics could’ve done critical damage.
“It would’ve affected me big time,” Provchy said. “I probably wouldn’t even wrestle anymore, honestly.”
In a recent Sports Illustrated article, new IOC President Thomas Bach praised wrestling for its response to being dropped, and for the actions that ultimately led to the sport’s reinstatement.
“Wrestling reacted in a remarkable way,” Bach said. “They reformed their federation and sport within months, and then they were rewarded by the vote of the IOC members.”
Not all were happy with these changes, which included alterations to the rules to increase scoring and make the sport more entertaining for the casual viewer. But many, like Combs coach Travis Miller, see the positives of this new era.
“As wrestling becomes more flashy,” Miller said, “it will draw closer to the world of MMA (mixed martial arts), which is already fueled by past champions of wrestling like Yuma’s Cain Velasquez and Glendale’s Benson Henderson. Any semblance of the MMA will grow the sport of wrestling all the way to little-kid wrestling in Arizona.”
Wrestling as an Olympic sport isn’t out of the woods yet. It does not have permanent-sport status and thus will still be subject to removal from the Games in future Olympic cycles.
For now, however, it’s in. And young wrestlers in the United States, the rest of the world and even here in Arizona can still close their eyes, hear the roar of the crowd and feel that gold medal being placed around their neck.