February 26, 2008

Wrestlers Battle for Starting Spots

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The wrestle-off. The very phrase is enough to give one an ominous case of the shivers. One of the most dreaded internal competitions in sports, a wrestle-off is the last resort for a coach when determining who will wrestle in a specific weight category.
Wrestle-offs happen throughout the wrestling world, from the amateur mats of a high school arena, to the tradition-steeped halls of the U.S Olympic Training Center.
At the college level, typically about half of the season is spent going to tournaments. At many tournaments, any one team can enter more than one wrestler in each weight category, eliminating the need for a designated “starter” in that weight class. However, once the dual meet season kicks into high gear, teams stick with a fairly regular line-up of guys who wrestle consistently at the same weight, week after week.
The first level of criteria for determining who wrestles where is a simple matter of performance in tournament competition.
“If two guys are even in the wrestling room, than it just makes sense to go with the guy who’s more successful in tournaments,” said senior captain Jordan Leen.
However, if this is not a sufficient indicator of superiority, it’s time to take it to the mat.
It is a straightforward but serious business.[img_assist|nid=28211|title=Stretch it out|desc=Freshman Justin Kerber (top) pins his opponent during the Red’s dual match against Wagner on Feb. 2.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
“[The coaches] will set a date,” Leen said, “and a certain weight, typically three pounds over. Then they weigh in. They have an hour, like in a match. A ref will come in, and the winner gets the spot.”
Although to an outsider it might seem like these rituals, which typically occur right before team practice, could be fun for the team in a friendly, carnival kind of way, most team members find the occasions uncomfortable, if not downright painful.
“It’s hard to watch,” Leen said. “As a teammate, you’re kind of pulling for both guys. It’s easier not to watch.”
Leen said that he was a participant in a wrestle-off his very first year at Cornell. That year there were three wrestlers at the same weight who were fairly equal in terms of tournament competition. Because of the weight-class trifecta, Leen said he actually had to go through two different wrestle-offs, as he had to overcome two opponents to earn the starting spot.
“It is, by far, the most nerve-racking thing about the sport,” he said.
The competition takes on a definitely personal environment, Leen said, which adds a lot of stress not necessarily present when you are wrestling in a situation against total strangers.
“You’re wrestling your friends, first off,” he said. “And every time you get a wrestle-off it is the most important match of the year for you.”
Usually, there is a best-of-three option for the dueling starters, so even if you have a bad day, or lose the first wrestle-off, you still can come back and earn the starting spot.
“You try and spread it out a little over time if you can,” Leen said.
However, the head coach always has veto power over the outcome of any battle.
“The bottom line is, you’ve got to put the guy out there who is going to win,” Leen said.