AFTER THE WHISTLE

Wrestling: Like no other sport

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— What does it take to be tough ? A handful of wrestlers from Routt County head to Denver this week with hopes of answering that question. Chances are that three days on the floor of the Pepsi Center at the Colorado State Wrestling Championships will provide all the knowledge they need.

In 10 years as a sports reporter for the Steamboat Pilot, I have covered all kinds of state playoff games including basketball, volleyball, football and soccer. Rarely is the road to a state title easy in any sport, and for the teams that complete the journey by winning a state title is something to be cherished forever.

But wrestling is unlike other sports in many ways, and winning a state title is unlike winning in many other sports.

Wrestling champions usually show the wear and tear of the matches on their faces and bodies. Cuts, bruises and pain are just a part of winning and losing.

A few years ago I had the privilege to stand alongside a mat with the late wrestling legend Carl Ramunno, who coached for the Sailors in the 1950s, '60s, '70s and early '80s. After his coaching career ended, Ramunno could still be found at the state tournament, volunteering his know-how and elbow grease to help out.

After a lifetime of coaching and more state titles than any other Steamboat coach, believe me, Ramunno knew what it took to win a state title and to be tough.

At the time, Steamboat Springs only had a couple of wrestlers in Denver, something that obviously bothered the coach who saw his teams collect six team state titles and 29 individual state titles.

His view of what it takes to be tough may have been slightly skewed by years of success in a time when wrestling was king in Steamboat Springs. He demanded that his wrestlers give their all. They were tough, and he was tough, and together they formed a tradition in which respect grew and respect was gained.

But as a former coach, he also realized that times had changed here and that the younger generations were not drawn to the same hard work, dedication and commitment it takes to be successful on the wrestling mat.

It's an opinion shared by many of the coaches in the sport especially those that have been around the mat for a while.

It's also hard to disagree with a man such as Ramunno who has forgotten more about wrestling than I will ever know. But I have to say one thing about the kids who come out for wrestling these days.

While wrestling has lost some of its power to newer team sports such as hockey and basketball. Wrestling is far from a dying sport. The Colorado High School Activities Association reported that more than 5,000 students took part in the sport in 2000. Steamboat even saw growth in the sport this year, and while the wrestling room still isn't full, coaches are optimistic about the future.

Why are numbers down here in Steamboat?

Part of that is that students have other choices these days. But another part is that wrestling is one of the last sports where the athlete has to take full responsibility for what happens on the mat. If he wins, then he made himself a champion. If he loses, then he can't blame a teammate. It's a rare thing in today's world where people don't like to take responsibility for what they do or how they do it, not only in sports, but in their everyday life.

Some people might think that I'm putting wrestling on a higher level based on my comments. Believe me, I'm not. I must admit that I would rather watch a hockey game than a wrestling match.

Wrestling is a sport , just like any other, that I cover in the course of a year.

What I'm saying is that it's a demanding sport that asks different things from young athletes than some of the other team sports. How those athletes answer the demands will be answered on the mats at the Pepsi Center this week in Denver and witnessed by thousands.

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