Life on the mat in Iowa
pblackwell, Thu, September 13th, 2007
Right now in Iowa, many questions are on the mind of citizens. How will the crops look? Do the Hawkeyes have a chance in the Big Ten? Do we have to see all those presidential candidates 2,458 more times before the caucuses?
What is certain, though, is that come wintertime, thousands of the faithful will pack into high school gymnasiums – some opulent, others more like sardine cans – and root and scream for their favorites on the mat as they tumble, twist, curl and pin their way to glory.
Just as football is seared into every child in Texas, just as basketball is indoctrinated into any kid in Indiana, so it is with Iowa and wrestling. This state and this sport join hands here in a way like nowhere else. And that marriage is strong, despite the assault on wrestling at every level (especially colleges) elsewhere in America.
Such is the subject of Mark Kriedler’s superb and fascinating book, “Four Days to Glory”, which centers on the quest of two Iowa high school wrestlers, in 2005, to win their fourth consecutive state championship – the ultimate symbol of athletic greatness in this patch of the Heartland.
Jay Borschel and Dan LeClere are the central figures of this tale. They already have three state titles, which by any reasonable standard is remarkable. But they know that only a fourth crown, claimed in their senior campaigns, will stamp them as immortals in the minds of wrestling fans in Iowa – the difference between “merely really good”, as Kriedler puts it, and greatness.
So Kriedler takes us into their lives. Jay Borschel is the working-class son of transient parents who planted roots in Iowa, and he somehow has maintained a high standard of performance despite a major growth spurt (from 103 to 171 pounds) that has kept other wrestlers in the past from realizing their full potential.
Jay burns to wrestle and win, is maniacal about it, and can’t understand why his Linn-Mar teammates have that same burning passion, that same willingness to sacrifice sweat and blood, aches and pains, to achieve all that they want.
As for Dan LeClere, he grew up a child of the farm, yet his whole life is about wrestling. His father, Doug, was a fine wrestler himself and has coached him and his three brothers all the way through, and is still willing to mix it up with anyone if properly motivated.
Yet Dan’s mother is the family rock, sensing – correctly – that the terrible mood swings the sport of wrestling creates can lead to mental anguish, even depression. It drove Dan’s older brother away from the sport, and even affects Dan himself before they work through it and he pushes on to more mat glory.
As he tells this tale, Kriedler also addresses the side issues in a thorough and enlightening way. He introduces us again to Dan Gable, the most famous name in wrestling history, whose heroics as a competitor, Olympic champion and coach are still discussed with reverie.
Yet Gable is hobbling, a physical reminder of all the battles he fought, and heartbroken that the sport is an easy target for elimination at schools desperate to avoid Title IX lawsuits. Even worse, great wrestlers like Jay Borschel and Dan LeClere spurn Iowa (where Gable’s teams won 15 national championships) to go to Virginia Tech, a clear sign that the Hawkeyes aren’t keeping all the best talent at home.
Even more harrowing, though, is Kriedler’s retelling of a weekend youth tournament held during the winter, which, as always, brings out the best in kids and the worst in parents.
In one instance, as Krideler writes, a kid is losing his match, and his mother is screaming at the top of her lungs to her son to get up off the mat. Those yells are so piercing and raw that the kid fakes an injury just to make it (and her) stop. The kid is 5 years old. Just think about that.
It all culminates, like most good sports stories, at the big event, in this case the state tournament. This just happened to be the last year this coronation took place in the ancient Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines – or “The Barn”, as they prefer to call it. After half a century there, the show moved to a state-of-the-art arena down the street, which took away just about every bit of ambience (dim lights, uncomfortable seating, creaky PA system, total intimacy) that made the event special.
Much the same thing happened here, in New York, when the state tournament ended four decades of tenure at the Syracuse War Memorial, split into two classes, and moved to larger, more modern venues in Albany, Buffalo, Long Island and Rochester. Something was gained – but something deeper was lost, and all feel it.
Here, in this last tour of “The Barn”, Jay Borschel and Dan LeClere seek the throne only 14 previous young men have achieved. Every state champion gets serenaded, to some degree, by the fans in Des Moines, but only four-timers get the singular thrill of 11,000 people rising to their feet in full throat, saluting a young man that realized his full potential.
In a day and age where young people have a deep sense of entitlement, wrestling doesn’t fit the equation. It forces you to practice 12 months a year, close to 365 days, jump rope, pump iron, run wind sprints in a humid wrestling room, and get used to ravenous hunger in order to keep weight. None of it is ever easy.
Such a pursuit is not recommended for timid souls with any kind of doubt or uncertainty. For total success, total commitment must be made, which is something Jay and Dan have managed to pull off, unlike the thousands of other young men that try.
A wrestler, in the end, is alone out on that mat. No coach or parent can help them execute a takedown or manage an escape. In “Four Days to Glory”, Mark Kriedler shows us that Iowans appreciate that kind of honesty, in a way no one else can.