Marine boot camps have nothing on high school wrestling.
Take it from Livonia Franklin’s David Chiola, a guy who has wrestled and coached the sport most of his life.
Six minutes on the mat during a match prove beyond a doubt that wrestling is the toughest challenge — both mentally and physically — for high school athletes to contend with.
“There is nothing tougher to do in high school,” said Chiola, who wrestled at now-closed Redford Bishop Borgess and is a longtime coach with the Patriots. “And I challenge anyone to think something is tougher. Anyone that thinks other sports are, all you have to do is find someone who does both sports and ask them.
“I don’t care if it’s football, lacrosse, swimming. There’s nothing tougher.”
Can’t cut it
With a knowing nod, Chiola bottom-lined it about just how tough it is.
“I’ve had more than a dozen kids that have gone off to Marine boot camp come back and say wrestling was tougher,” Chiola said. “And that’s coming from guys that are adults now.”
Football players might think they can handle joining the wrestling team. But then they find out practice begins with a two-mile run and opt out.
“The funny thing is, we start our practice running two miles,” Chiola said. “And I have so many kids that go, ‘I could never wrestle, you guys run two miles.’ I’m like, that’s the easiest thing we do the entire practice. The entire practice … and we have kids that won’t join because of it.”
They are doing all that “on maybe a granola bar and a sandwich. They didn’t get to eat a full breakfast or full dinner.”
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Don’t forget actual wrestling, followed by agonizing sprints.
“Even if you were going to make everything even (with other sports), like our 2½-hour practice, these guys will go home tonight, weigh their food, go out and run extra to lose whatever they ate,” Chiola said. “The whole weight-cutting thing, they’ll come to my room tomorrow morning to check their weight.
“So it’s a 24-hour thing. You can’t wake up in the middle of the night and say, ‘Hey, I’m thirsty, I think I’ll have a glass of water.’ No, you can’t have a glass of water. You already had your water allotment for the day. It’s a lot of mental toughness.”
The assertion that nothing tops the six minutes of a wrestling match in athletic difficulty is argued somewhat by Salem senior all-state distance swimmer Phillip Collingwood.
“Full respect to wrestlers, because they are able to take physical punishment, give it out, outsmart your opponent,” said Collingwood, one of the area’s top 500-yard freestylers. “I think that’s where swimming has that different aspect. Which is, there’s no way to outstrategize.
“Whoever works the hardest, whoever hurts the most, wins in swimming. In wrestling, you could know a better technique or have a better move or be able to execute something.”
It is a discipline
Of course, there is the physical battle each prep wrestler faces in every practice, as well as under the spotlight in matches — which for elite-level wrestlers such as Franklin senior Nathan Atienza and Westland John Glenn junior Mikey Mars, will escalate until the Division 1 individual state finals March 2-4 at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
“It’s the hardest six minutes out there,” said Atienza, who went undefeated in 2015-16 and entered individual regionals with just one loss this season. “It’s just you out there against your opponent and you’re pushing yourselves to the absolute limit.
“There’s no breaks, just two kids, two warriors really, just going at it for six minutes as hard as they can, trying to better themselves and try to be better than the other kid.”
Mars, a two-time individual champion for the Rockets, said being mentally strong is the key ingredient to wrestling success.
“Mental toughness, just being strong-minded and iron-willed, that’s the most important thing,” Mars said. “Because then you can always push yourself past your breaking point.”
Former Canton all-stater and University of Michigan wrestler Alec Pantaleo described wrestling as a “discipline” more than a sport.
“The thing with wrestling, you can look at basketball, you can look at football,” Pantaleo said. “It’s like, when you’re not playing well, when you’re doing as great as you should be, you can be pulled off to the side and put on the bench and catch your breath.
“With wrestling, it’s complete opposite. You have to get stronger as the match goes on. As you start diving into the hard work and real nitty-gritty of it, you have to keep pushing forward.
“That’s why I look at wrestling as more of a discipline than a sport. It really is you against yourself out there. It’s hard to keep pushing through when you don’t want to. And you can’t say the same thing about the sports where you can rely on other people to help you win.”
Although returning to The Palace podium obviously drives wrestlers such as Atienza and Mars — Pantaleo also enjoyed that thrill during his career with the Chiefs — the daily grind away from cheering crowds is something that can separate the wheat from the chaff.
It is tough and can be lonely. But supreme sacrifice is needed in order to get through up to three, two-minute periods — even more if there is overtime.
No one wants the embarrassment of being in control for 5:59 only to let victory slip away in the final second. After all, there might be hell to pay at the next day’s practice.
“You got to go for the whole six minutes,” Franklin’s Chiola said. “And I’ve seen that, too. We condition for that third period. I get really mad at my kids that get pinned in the first or the second. I’m like, ‘You just threw all your conditioning out the window.’
“You’re training for that third period. Right now (in practice), they’re doing a thing where one guy stays in for five minutes. And you’ll notice, that at the end of the five minutes, the guy is much easier to take down.
“That’s the whole premise in a meet, get a kid to that fifth minute, sixth minute and he’s a much different wrestler. Everybody’s good for a minute or two.”
‘A lot of sacrifice’
John Glenn head coach Bill Polk concurred that being able to compete on the mat — and have any kind of success — is about individual dedication and sacrifice. Not even football two-a-days can measure up to wrestling in those areas.
“I believe it is within one’s self,” said Polk, another former prep wrestler. “This sport takes a lot of sacrifice in every aspect. Opponents are roadblocks. If you prepare more and have confidence from your preparation, usually you will prevail.
“Wrestling six minutes can seem to last a tremendous amount of time, longer if you have not prepared correctly.”
Polk did tip his cap to what athletes in other sports do endure, however.
“I do feel all sports have a special part of its make-up that makes them all tough,” Polk said. “But I do feel wrestling is the toughest. Wrestling has everything. You need conditioning, discipline, pressure, smarts and the ability to perform as a team and an individual at the same time.
“When you are on the mat, the spotlight is on you, no one else. You have to be able to use nervous energy in a positive manner.”
Veteran Farmington coach Al Beyar said the six minutes of a high school wrestling match test an athlete like no other competition can. One reason is the way the sport is structured, with three, two-minute periods with virtually no time to recharge.
“It just takes a unique individual to be that tough to go six minutes,” Beyar said. “You don’t really get any rest time between periods. You get just enough time to get set and go again.
“And if there’s any type of bleeding, you stop just long enough to get it fixed. You don’t have time to get a drink. You can’t call a timeout. Yeah, I think you can call it the toughest six minutes in high school sports. Easily.”
Beyar agreed with Pantaleo that wrestlers are pretty much out on an island, with nobody else to blame or pass the baton to if things go south.
“In football, a team has 11 players. You can always say someone didn’t do their job,” Beyar said. “Like, we didn’t score a touchdown because someone didn’t block or I missed the tackle because somebody else didn’t do what they were supposed to.
“But in wrestling, you’re out there by yourself. There’s no one else to put the blame on. But the good part is you can get all the accolades, because you did it all yourself.”
Tougher than ever
Salem head coach Jeremy Henderson also knows from personal experience what wrestling can do to a high school athlete’s physical and mental well-being. He earned an individual championship for the Rocks in 2006 and now is working to bring his old high school back to prominence.
“Even when you win, it hurts, but you know deep down that every inch of you was put into that match and you would die to get your hand raised,” Henderson said. “It is the most humble sport. You have to shake the hand of an opponent that just manhandled you on the mat and (you) might have to face him again in a week.
“It is a grind every day in practice and your body is pushed to the limit, even when you don’t want it to be since there are others that are coming after you on your own team every day. Six minutes on a mat feels like an hour.”
According to Chiola, there is another reason why high school wrestlers have to buckle up for a long, hard, strenuous ride if that is the sport they pursue.
Everybody is working just as hard, at year-long camps, clinics and in open wrestling rooms where rivals during the season test each other to the max.
Chiola smiles when he thinks back to how prep wrestling was back when he was at Borgess in the late 1970s. He’s witnessed a lot of change from the sidelines, too, since he is in his 37th year as a high school coach.
“Kids are starting at a really young age,” Chiola said. “You had a few kids do that back then. But now, you have more freshmen at the state meet in one weight class than you did in the entire state meet back when I wrestled.
“They’re starting younger and they’re coming into ninth grade more polished. Kids are doing a lot more open mats and clinics, so they know each other.”
The presence of social media is another example of what wrestlers in 2017 experience.
“You get more matches online, rankings online, you get more egos involved,” Chiola said.
Prepares for life
Yet if more kids tap into tweets and other tidbits of information for inspiration or motivation, they don’t mind delving into Dan Gable’s unwritten “bible” of the sport as fashioned over decades of dominance as a wrestler and coach.
Pantaleo, who in 2016 competed for the United States Junior Olympics wrestling team in Italy, could not hold back on his praise of Gable — who was an All-America wrestler who went on to coach the University of Iowa to 15 NCAA championships.
“There’s a quote, Dan Gable said it,” Pantaleo said. “He said, ‘The first period is won by the fastest wrestler, the second period is won by the most technical wrestler and the third period is won by the wrestler with the most heart.’”
Even more to the point, Polk quoted Gable as saying: “Once you have wrestled, everything else is easy.”
And those who have stuck with the sport despite all the gut-wrenching workouts, constant weight checks and inner and outer turmoil of all kinds will tell you they would do it all over again.
As far as Pantaleo is concerned, he’s glad that wrestling is so tough, because it prepares athletes for life’s subsequent challenges.
“With wrestling, it does weed out and it does make people stronger,” Pantaleo said. “It shows a lot of character. You can tell someone who breaks under pressure and can’t handle a lot of pressure being put on them on the wrestling mat. That’s very visible to see.
“And even though wrestling is only a small part of your life, I know it’s going to help me carry on. My job later in life is going to all be about pressure being put on me. Thankfully for me, I’ll know I’ll be able to cope with that stress and be able to push through it.”
Gable would be proud to hear that.