We invested in the sport. Practice, practice, practice. When he was nine, we spent a ton of money and time sending him to a Purler wrestling camp once a week for about four months. He watched videos and practiced with his dad as well as his teammates but he still just couldn't seem to end up on the winning side of a bracket.
At age 10 he decided he didn't want to do it anymore. So we sat out a year. I'm not going to lie, it was kind of nice to have a season off. We spent a lot of time at home that winter and it was a good time for us.
When E was 11, his little brother decided he wanted to wrestle. I tried to talk him out of it. I had done my time as a wrestling mom and I didn't want to sit through the hard losses again. But just as I had almost talked the little one into not joining the team, E decided that he'd like to give it a try again. And this momma's heart sank. I did not want him to wrestle. It had been so much work; so hard on him and on me. But I didn't tell him that. I just asked him if he was sure. He said he was, so we signed up and once again E was a Mat Cat wrestler.
That year we went to five tournaments and a couple of scrambles. He didn't win a single match. Not one. But he had so many that were close. I mean, super close. Like one point decisions close. It was heart breaking. When sub-districts came around, we asked if he wanted to participate. His answer was, "I haven't won a match all year. I don't think it's worth the time and money for me to go." We made it clear that if he wanted to go and try, we would happily do so, but in the end he opted not to continue the season. It was the right choice.
The next year, he wanted to wrestle again. He was bigger, stronger and faster than he was the year before. He was more coachable than ever and continued to work hard. At his first tournament, he won. Not just one match, but the whole stinking thing! For the very first time, my son, who had been doing this since he was six years old, was taking home the bracket!
The rest of the season he continued to do well, earning second, first, second and first at the next four tournaments. When districts came around, he was ready. So ready, in fact, that he walked away with the bracket again. He was a state qualifier!
At the big tournament, he ended up one match away from making the podium, but was in the top eight in the entire state. It was amazing to watch him. When he lost the final match, in what ended up being a very close bout, my heart just about broke in two. I'd wanted it so badly, because I knew he had wanted it so very much. But once again, E showed his true colors. He held his head high and returned to the stands to greet his many fans. He hugged us all and thanked everyone for coming. He was pure class. To this day, thinking of that moment brings proud tears to my eyes.
This year he was a 13 year-old seventh grader who wrestled in a 14 and under bracket. Again, this made him one of the youngest kids in his division. Even harder, for the post-season, he had to face 14 year-old high school freshmen. Those boys had a entirely different practice experience than E did. They worked two hours a day, five days a week, with other high schoolers. E had practice a couple times a week and often didn't have a practice partner close to his size. But that didn't stop him. He worked hard and made the best of what he could. He won a lot of matches this year against kids in his weigh class. He ended up wrestling a lot of combined brackets that put him up against kids who were five, ten, or even fifteen pounds heavier than him. He came up short there a few times. He earned a couple of first place brackets but ended up with the silver or bronze medals more times than not.
When districts came along, he faced tough competition. In fact, there were several high school freshmen in his bracket. He persevered and ended up fourth there. It was enough to get him to the next level. He was once again a state qualifier.
He really wanted to make the podium at state. But as the fourth place finisher from District 1, he matched up against the first place finisher from District 3; a freshman who was tough enough that E got pinned. His next opponent was also a high schooler and although E went the distance in that bout, he didn't have enough points to win. Two matches and he was done. State wrestling didn't go quite like we'd hoped, but I'm still so proud of this kid. He didn't walk away with any wins but he walked tall.
When you wrestle, it's all you. You either did enough to win or you didn't. You can't blame someone else. You work your booty off and leave everything you have on the mat. It's by far the toughest four and a half minutes in sports.
One of my favorite things about watching Eli wrestle, since he was very little, is how he leaves the mat. In a sport where tears and tantrums aren't all that uncommon, Eli has consistently impressed me with the way he acts when the bout is over. Win or lose, he walks off with grace, humility and high character. The few times this hasn't been the case were moments we used to reflect with him on what it means to honor Christ in your day to day life. He's taken those moments and turned them into something beautiful. At state, after a really hard loss, he again displayed great sportsmanship as he walked off the mat. I couldn't be more proud.
This weekend we're heading to Iowa for Middle School Nationals. The very next day after districts, E qualified as an alternate for Team Kansas. I'm looking forward to watching him wrestle one more time this season. He's looking forward to getting to eat whatever he wants after this one last weigh in. I'm sure neither of us will be disappointed.