Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Foxcatcher, Wrestlers and Steam Rooms

Viewers of “Foxcatcher” come away with an impression that wrestlers are weird. It is an accurate impression.

Wresting ImageFirst off, you have to be a little off center to go out for wrestling. Many wrestlers, including me, took up the sport because they were too small to play football, too short to play basketball and too slow to run track.

One thing wrestlers had in common was muscles, sometimes rippling right up and past the neck.

If you seriously wrestled for any significant time, your body toned up. Okay, maybe not the heavyweights, but they weren’t really wrestlers. They were just football players wearing smaller helmets over their ears. For the rest of us that started out as 75-pound wimps, we became ripped, even if we only weighed 105 pounds.

Practice took place in a cramped, sweaty, smelly room, barely big enough for a wrestling mat. There were no bleachers, no scorecard, no fans (neither ones with blades nor butts).

Generally speaking, there weren’t any whack jobs like John “Eagle” DuPont who invited the wrestling team over to his lodge for a brisk workout and vodka tonics. Wrestling coaches fell into two camps – some were football coaches who worked out their repressed feelings from a failed football season and others were former wrestlers. I had both kinds.

My wrestling coach who was a former wrestler – and a very good one – was about my size. He was often my wrestling partner. If I ever got a big head, from some other than cauliflower ear, he trimmed me down to size. By my senior year, I was at least able to give him a decent workout.

foxcatcher-headerMark and Dave Schultz were great wrestlers, but seemingly poor judges of character. Both got tied up with DuPont, who screwed with Mark’s head and who shot Dave dead in a driveway. Most wrestlers have no where near the talent of the Schultz brothers, who both won Olympic gold medals, but frequently have the same character blinders.

Wrestlers have a lot of pimples. Not hard to explain with all the body contact and sweat and set rooms. They don’t have a lot of excess fat. Again easy to explain because of high-energy workouts, the equivalent of isometric weight training and health-food diets to maintain their weight.

At our high school at least, the wrestling team didn’t excite the cheerleaders. They drew lots to see who had to show up. The losers had to come.

The scene in “Foxcatcher” that made me snicker were wrestlers jogging through leafy Valley Forge. My teammates and I hop-skipped over scraggy foothills west of Denver, carrying pocketknives in the totally ridiculous belief we could use them to fend off a rattlesnake.

The scene in “Foxcatcher” I related to most was when Mark Schultz went on a food binge before a match and had to lose 12 pounds in 90 minutes. I struggled with making weight, less because I binged and more because I was growing into my body inconveniently during wrestling season.

scaleI spent at least one night a week in a steam room wearing enough rubber clothing to bounce. I ate fruit, lettuce and an occasional Snickers bar. I rationed how much water I drank. I had pangs of guilt if I swallowed the water I swished after brushing my teeth.

Thanksgiving was especially hard. I remember eating dark meat, chewing on spare celery from the dressing and sniffing the gravy.

Unlike Mark Schultz, who went out after his just-in-time weight loss routine and torched his opponent, I often dragged onto the mat, hungry, thirsty and lethargic. Only the prospect of being embarrassed in front of a handful of fans and my teammates made me snap to life when the whistle sounded. Too often, that wasn’t enough.

When I left high school, I was glad to hang up my wrestling singlet. No more mad workouts, steam rooms or going mano y mano with some kid with forearms like Popeye’s.

Unfortunately, college admissions offices keep records you submit to impress them on how well-rounded you are. Desperate for bodies who could find the inside of a circle on a wrestling mat, my college’s new wrestling coach found me. He made no threats. He just pleaded for me to show up, pick a weight – the team only had six varsity wrestlers – and wrestle. He didn’t care whether I won or lost. He just was tired of forfeiting too many weight classes.

That’s how I earned my college wrestling letter. I earned it on a road trip to Oregon where, perhaps unexpectedly, I won three matches. The coach viewed me winning as a bonus. He was just glad not to see empty chairs on our team’s sideline.

Oh yeah, my college wrestling coach was a former wrestler. You could tell without asking.


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