I’ve always attributed a lot of who I am as a person to my experiences in athletics in general, but none so much as Wrestling in high school and my brief dabbling in Mixed Martial Arts in College. I’ll do the Wrestling in Part 1 and the MMA in Part Deux.
Here’s how they break down for me.
I’ve always been a fat kid in my head. Yep. Always. I’m not sure where that comes from, I’ve always been athletic or at least I’ve thought I was.
Maybe it’s because I grew up in a large household where you had to eat fast and a lot or you might not get any. That’s silly to think of but it’s possible that that’s how it started.
Maybe it’s because food has been a substitute for love in some ways in my family.
Either way, when you get a combination of inherently gluttonous with body issues, you tend to lean toward being a jock. I played soccer in Germany growing up and was always a fast runner.
My mom was pretty strict and protective growing up so I didn’t get to be on sports teams as much as I wanted to, or get to travel. Pretty overbearing and overprotective. I was pretty much stuck with Cross Country and the occasional Track meet, but hardly be part of a team sport. ESPECIALLY if that team had an away-game. Kinda kills the fun if you get good at something and can’t do half of the matches.
Then, one day, she moved away to the US while my older brother, my Father and I lived in Korea so that we could finish up high school there.
I was free.
As long as school was kept up, my father could care less what I get into. Good in some ways, bad in others, but I was so happy to be able to be a “normal” kid and get to playing some REAL sports.
Let’s rewind a little bit. When I was a kid in Germany I was (and my whole family was) routinely picked on and abused by the German kids and even faculty sometimes. They would call me racial names and beat me up sometimes. In the school system there and at the time, teachers would be able to beat your ass if you crossed the line. That wasn’t just against us, that went for everyone. Sometimes I felt that it may have been special for them to do it to us. I’ve always been a pretty good diplomat though, but it didn’t always work. Kids can be cruel regardless, but it’s rough when you’re that different from an intolerant group of fuckers.
Not much changed in Korea, except there, American’s were viewed as curious creatures. Some would see us as semi-movie stars and would always tell me about how they love my eyes. Others would think “oh shit, here come some more borderline-criminal army brats or dipshit GI’s come to harsh our buzz”.
Either way, there were plenty of times where I was chased or that the US news would tell Americans to either avoid certain areas due to anti-American protests or just stay the fuck home because the Koreans were pissed about something we did or supported.
SO, I was always violently opposed to any bullying and thought, “I’d love to be able to whoop a bully’s ass”. Enter Wrestling.
I walked by a practice some time and I didn’t even mean to. I was leaving the gym from my first summer of trying to put on some muscle and saw a guy I knew in school practicing. He told me to come over and work out with them. I did.
It sucked A LOT but I like very difficult things and challenges. I found it.
My first coach apparently had gone to the Olympics to represent Guam. Coach Torres.
He was a smack-talker, very demanding, passionate, and a real hardass. Most of me thinks that he felt like he was finally in control in his life since he probably didn’t get it as an enlisted man in the Army.
He would drill us to death and the assistant coaches would be our sparring partners as well. Good guys, solid wrestlers and would be more informative than just barking maneuvers at you.
We would do squats, pushups, sprawls, burpies, situps and drill drill drill until we couldn’t see straight. I never threw up but I wanted to a couple of times.
It was time for the first match and I was terrified and excited. I had never experience anything like weight-classes and I was introduced to the science of “cutting weight” to wrestle smaller guys. I don’t think I had to do much that first season to cut weight so I was fine. It wasn’t always like that and I still remember my record of ringing out 16lbs in two days for a match. Not a good idea but youth can be dumb as hell, as is proven often.
For my first match in front of a lot of people, including my Dad, and I was a nervous wreck.
I mean, it’s war. I’m a peaceful person but didn’t know what I’d be like in a REAL setting where it’s me and him and that’s it. I went out to the mat, shook his hand and went at it.
I don’t remember how long it lasted, but he pinned me. I lost. I lost in front of everyone. I lost in front of my team, my school, the cheerleaders, my Dad and myself. I was devastated.
I went to the bathroom and beat the hell out of a stall door and just cried my eyes out. Not gracious, but I had lots of learning to do.
I went back and trained so hard and focused so much and swore to myself that I would do my best. Well, as much as I could as a smoker. I was trying to be cool and I always wonder how much farther I could have gone if I had been healthier. Oh well.
The next match was against another school. There were only 5 in Korea so there wasn’t a ton of diversity.
That match I went out and got intense. I got focused. I won.
No greater thrill had I felt up until that point. I felt my heart bursting with pride. There is no high like working yourself to death for something and having it happen.
That season ended and the next one was with one of the most influential people of my entire life. Coach Jeff Hammann.
I had never respected someone as much as I did him. He was an honest officer, great rapport, a tough instructor, a good man, solid work ethic and someone who you would gladly get your face smashed in for if his honor came into question.
He was my coach at first and later my dear friend.
I was captain both years that he was the coach. He coached us through good times and bad times. Through my highs and my crushing defeats. When I got out of line, he quickly corrected me. I got pretty good at wrestling on our little peninsula, but I probably would have been mediocre at best at a big American School.
One time, I was showboating with some techniques I learned and was really taking it to a teammate. Not in an acceptable way. It was aggressive. This teammate is one of my best friends in life and I was best man at his wedding to put it in perspective.
Coach said “wow those are sweet moves but you’re acting like a fucking jerk”. He wrestled me then and promptly whooped my ass. I’m not sure if that was the time it happened, but I think he fractured my nose or something. It’s bent funny when you push on it, to this day. Bled profusely. I completely deserved it though and I’m so glad that he did it. It still bothers me to this day for having been such a douche to someone I love do dearly.
Even beyond Wrestling, Coach was a rock for me. One instance in particular was above and beyond.
I had my little heart broken badly by a girl whom I had been going steady with for a few months. We would commute on trains to see each other as we lived in different cities.
I thought she cheated on me. Shaky intel (in retrospect) from a guy I didn’t know so well but was a fantastic story teller. I was in her city to visit her. I stepped outside to talk to our friend and left then and there. Destroyed me.
That was some of the most pain I’d felt in my whole life up to that point. I ended up tearfully hopping on a train at 3am from her city and ended up in mine around 5am with nothing more than my backpack and my guitar. No case, just a guitar. I had even written my first song for her. Not a good one, but a song.
I wasn’t positive though if what I heard her friend say was the truth and she was literally moving to the US the next day so I would likely never see her again. I couldn’t leave like that.
I was broke and I had just enough money to get me home. I got home but decided that I wasn’t going to let a half-story destroy the memory of my first and truest romance. I needed to get back to see her for closure, for something, for anything.
I had nothing and I don’t remember but I think I was alone at home.
I decided to see Coach.
I stayed outside his doorstep for hours at the base until he came out to go to work. He looked disturbed to see me in such bad shape. I was clearly very upset and I poured my heart out to him to tell him the situation. He said “we gotta get you back down there then. take this money and go get it done.”
He gave me what he had on him, which was enough. I thanked him profusely and swore that I’d pay him back at the next season’s first practice.
I did. It was paper money and change (to the penny) in an envelope that I handed him with his name on it. I said, “thank you again, Coach”. You could see that he was happy to have helped and we started getting ready for my senior year and last season of Wrestling at Taegu American School.
It’s amazing how much humanity you’ll find in places that you think may be odd. Wrestling is a sport of guts, determination, imposing will and being willing to take a beating for glory. What one forgets in the process, is that such an amazing amount of work can only be accomplished if there’s a passionate heart beating the blood into those moving limbs. A heart willing to risk everything for the possibility of winning some thing in the end. For yourself, maybe. For your team, maybe. To bring pride to your family, maybe. To feel like you’re alive, maybe.
It’s only in deciding to go down that road that you’ll find others who are like you. Those are the people you’ll learn the most from. You’ll find yourself in them, and they’ll get clearer on themselves though you.
Coach and I have lost touch since then. I’ve tried to look him up but with no success. But if we do ever meet again, there isn’t an envelope big enough on this earth to contain what I feel he has given me.