Consider the odds.
They’re astounding even by athletic standards.
In the late fall of each year, somewhere north of 8,600 wrestlers begin the journey that will take them around the state and right on through hell, an extended stay replete with wind sprints and projectile vomiting and blood and contortionist acts and stinging, salty sweat.
By February, 632 of these wrestlers will have earned the most sought-after placement in Iowa, a spot in the four-day State Tournament.
In the end, the tournament will produce a winner in each of the sport’s fourteen weight-class winners, and it will do so in each of Iowa’s three high school wrestling classifications, Class 1A, 2A and 3A.
That makes for a total of forty-two state champs, or roughly .005 percent of those who began the season.
That is the math behind doing the unimaginable, taking your school and the town or the rural communities that surround it on a wild, emotional ride, and winning it all—one time.
Now factor in the truth of the adolescent body, which is that no matter what you do (and wrestlers have pretty much tried everything), it more or less refuses to stop growing and changing shape.
Factor injuries and luck.
Factor the potential of everything else going right, only to result in an inexplicably terrible draw at State—getting an enormously difficult first- or second-round match, for example, because of the tournament’s history of not seeding the wrestlers in any sort of pecking order.
Factor nerves and slippage.
Factor, let us say, a severe weeklong case of bronchitis that robs a superior athlete of one of his greatest advantages, his conditioning, and returns him to the land of the merely mortal at precisely the worst time. ( We’ll get to that.)
Factor the sport’s enduring truism, which is that even the great ones are usually one false step removed from being put on their backs by some kid they’ve never heard of.
It isn’t a lonely existence so much as a select one, and the wrestling coaches and parents and fans use that fact as a sort of proof of virtue: wrestlers are better than other athletes because their drive is so pure, because their pursuit is so solitary.
So few people outside their closed circle of fellow wrestlers could ever even begin to understand the sacrifices they make in order to simply get on the mat, much less compete and win.