Wrestling is arguably the oldest sport in history, but what won’t be argued is that it is one of the toughest and most demanding. A one-on-one contest that requires peak physical conditioning and lasting mental fortitude, wrestling is a test of true grit. Young athletes develop dedication for the sport through years of practice, but that’s not the only quality that can be cultivated in a wrestling room. Dedication, perseverance, and self-determination—these qualities are also shaped by the sport and often influence more than just the athletic aspect of a person’s character.
Those payoffs are long lasting, but they, as intangibles often are, are hardly satisfying for high school wrestlers as they are fruits that are reaped later in life.
Which brings us to this weekend, the State Tournament in Bakersfield. It’s the big show for every high school wrestler and their opportunity to earn a tangible representation of their hard work — a State medal.
As a sports reporter and fan of the sport I know the road these wrestlers have taken to get to Bakersfield. I understand what wrestling practice entails, how grueling a match can be, and the pressure that comes with a sport that requires you to be your own island. But I won’t pretend to understand the amplification of those things when it comes to State.
However, I do know a man who fully understands the gravity of the upcoming tournament. Someone who has been in the same shoes as those who will soon hit the mat in Bakersfield. As a four time State qualifier and a back-to-back State champion, he knows not only what it takes to be successful under the spotlight, but he also knows how much of a lasting impact it can have on a person’s life.
“Watching the semis or the finals, and knowing how tough and how big the tournament is, and I think about how big the state of California is, I still get chills of ‘Wow, I was the best wrestler in the state at my weight class,’” Lewis Gonzalez said. “It still gets to me. It’s something you’ll live with your whole life and you’re proud of.”
Gonzalez won his gold medals nearly a decade ago during his junior and senior seasons at Turlock High. Still, all this time later, he is remembered and recognized for his accomplishments. For Gonzalez, the State Tournament was an opportunity to forge a legacy for himself. Now, seven local wrestlers hold their wrestling legacies in their hands.
That’s what makes the stage so big in Bakersfield. Much of the field have been wrestling nearly their entire lives, developing themselves for this one tournament. But for all those years, all those countless practices and long-distance runs, there remains one universal truth: on any given day anyone can be a champion.
And that’s what wrestling is all about, performing under pressure when it matters most. League records and tournament records won’t matter on Friday because it’s do-or-die across all weight classes.
“This is our Super Bowl, pretty much. It’s what we prepare for all year long,” Gonzales said. “The California State Championships, just the way the post-season is that leads up to it, I think it’s the biggest high school tournament in the country.”
“I think it’s getting tougher and tougher every year. It seems like there’s more depth, more kids are getting into it,” Gonzalez added.
Pitman, Turlock, and Hilmar are fine tuning their respective wrestlers as you read these words. They’re preparing their representatives because that’s all they can do. There are no new moves to be learned, no strategies to be developed, and no gains to be made. The work has been put in to get to this point and each wrestler has reached the height of their conditioning for the season. All that’s left to do now is to reach the height of their potential by seizing the opportunity in front of them and rising above the pressure.
Those who succeed in doing so will never forget it, and neither will their peers. That’s what’s at stake at State.