I've been to plenty of big sporting events in my life. I've attended a Wrestlemania, March Madness, several NFL games and two Rose Bowls. Each of which were spectacular with different levels of grandeur and mystique to them. Each provided a vibrant, lively crowd and showcased the best that their respective sports had to offer. However, I will remember none of those events in quite the same way as I will remember my first trip to Wells Fargo Arena.
As I scrambled to find a place to park, which entrance to go through and what mat to find, I wasn't able to fully appreciate the totality of my environment. Overestimating my intrinsic navigation skills, I found myself about four minutes late to the first match I was supposed to cover at the IHSAA state wrestling tournament. It was a 106-pound bout between Colfax-Mingo’s Jimmy Abell and Wilton’s Tanner Greenwald.
At the time, I had just one thing on my mind: I hope I find the right mat. I made my way to the media area and scurried to the floor. Seeing familiar coaches at the floor entrance, I knew I was finally in the right place. As luck would have it, I sat down at the correct match (which was in the final period), snapped some photos and was able to gather myself shortly thereafter.
Knowing it would be about a half hour before my next match to cover, I took the opportunity to gather myself and take in the surroundings. I had never seen anything quite like this. With eight mats going at once, it was almost impossible to keep track of which fans were cheering for whom, at least until one of the matches ended and there was an audible roar from that wrestler’s cheering section.
I saw wrestling fans from all around the state packed into the 16,100-seat arena. Some came from hours away to support a single competitor from their school, but when they got their chance, they screamed as loud and as hard as the rest.
I saw the athletes around me. Some were trying to loosen up. Some tried to calm their nerves. All of them looked ready for what lay before them, even though I know only very few actually were. Their coaches stood beside them to provide both tactical as well as emotional support, but they made little difference at this point other than a possible shoulder to cry on for those unfortunate enough to be eliminated early.
I looked back out on to the floor I had just returned from and was able to appreciate the rapid-fire pace at which the matches rolled by. Although for those boys waiting, I’m sure it felt like an eternity.
Later, I would witness dozens of boys return from the floor in anger and sadness. Some of them had high expectations that came crashing down under the brute strength of their combatants. Those unfortunate many rolled tear after tear, having to be comforted by teammates and coaches. Even some media members felt the need to sympathetically try to cheer them up.
In the exact same tunnel, there were wrestlers who came through bursting with extreme jubilation following either dominating or narrow first-round victories. The best part of the whole event was that it didn’t matter how they won. Whether narrow or decisive, all that mattered were two words: survive and advance.
There were no flashy decorations. Nor was there any excessive ceremony, no halftime contests or TV timeouts. This was raw, pure sport at its finest, and I loved every single minute of it.
At some point I realized that I had always been a wrestling fan; I just never knew it until now. Despite having to talk to several wrestlers and coaches with crushed dreams following crippling losses, the passion and the hunger that led to these now brutal emotions started with love for the sport. Although I’m new to the sport, that is a very familiar feeling for me, and it’s why I love sports so much. Sport is not about the end result; it’s about the journey.
Sports can be the most moving, powerful thing on Earth. They bring people together from all walks of life, people who may have never had anything else in common. They build people up with dreams of greatness. Then sports can tear those dreams down with all the weight of the world, but for those few left standing at the finish, there is no better feeling. It’s those dreams that motivate athletes to give everything they can to their sport.
I have no doubt that is the case for every single one of those competing in that tournament, their coaches, parents and fans. Nothing is more important to them than winning, until that option is off the table, and it’s only when that happens that they are able to appreciate the journey.