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Dirty Moves

Hard lessons learned, and taught, on a San Gabriel Valley wrestling mat

October 30, 2005|James Brown | James Brown is the author of several novels and the memoir "Los Angeles Diaries" (Perennial, 2004). He lives in Lake Arrowhead.

At 4:30 on Sunday morning I roust my boys out of bed and tell them to use the bathroom. When they're done, each takes his turn stepping onto the scale beside the tub. They're groggy, of course. They're slow to react, but they don't protest. My older son understands the importance of a single ounce in wrestling, and the younger is quickly learning. The slightest difference in weight can mean having to compete in the next division, potentially giving away nearly five precious pounds to your opponent. That might not sound like much, but it is when you're already little more than muscle and bone.Stripped to his boxers, Logan tops the scale at 111. He's a pound and one ounce over the weight for the division in which he prefers to wrestle, where he's strongest, between 105 and 109. Logan curses, the most popular four-letter expletive in the book.

"Don't cuss," I say, though his father is hardly a model of civil speech.

Logan steps off the scale.

"I knew I shouldn't have eaten that banana last night," he says.

"You might still make it."

"How?"

"By the time we get there," I say, "you'll probably have to use the bathroom again. That's another 3, maybe 4 ounces. And you can always run around the gym a couple times."

At 12, Logan has been wrestling competitively for five years, and he does not like even the slightest disadvantage. Little Nate, on the other hand, is only 6 and weighs in at 34 1/2 pounds, close to the limit for his class. I pat him on the head as he steps off the scale.

"Good going," I say.

"What?"

"You're on weight."

"Oh," he says. "Is that good?"

"It's very good."

This is his first year in competition, and he's excited, wanting to follow in his brother's footsteps and win his own shelf full of medals and trophies. I'm confident that he will. The youngest in the brood is often the toughest, having on a daily basis to fight off the tortures and teasing of his older brothers.

By 5 we're in the car, headed for El Monte High School in the San Gabriel Valley. It's a good 70 miles or better, and we need to be there between 6 and 7 for weigh-ins. Miss those and you don't wrestle. Nate is snuggled in the back with a blanket and a pillow. Logan sits shotgun but with the seat reclined, huddled under his Levi's jacket, so that he too can sleep while I drive. I sip coffee and try to keep my eyes open. It's still dark, and fortunately there aren't many people on the road. We make good time. Shortly after sunrise, we pull off the freeway, drive a few more miles, and then turn into the parking lot of the high school. Already it's beginning to fill up.

The registration tables are situated outside the main entrance to the gym. I get in line with the other parents and wait my turn with Nate. Logan, meanwhile, takes this opportunity to run around the gym, hoping to shed those last ounces. A few minutes later I step up to the table and show the woman in charge my kids' USA Wrestling cards.

"What team are they on?"

"We're independent."

"Excuse me?"

"We don't have a team," I say. "It's just me and my two sons."

"I'm sorry, sir," she says. "They have to be on a registered USA team or they can't wrestle."

We used to have a team but it disbanded a couple of years back when the coach's three boys graduated from USA Wrestling's youth programs to high school wrestling. Now, from time to time, especially when the people working the registration tables are new to their job, I have problems. But I'm prepared. I know the bylaws by heart, down to the page stating that independents are allowed to compete as long as they're accompanied by a registered Copper Coach with a current Copper Coach card. And that person would be me. I'm about to rattle all this off to the woman when the man working the table beside her, a man who's registered us several times in the past, speaks up.

"No, we take independents. We don't get many, but we take them. I know this guy," he says. "You're from the mountains, right?"

"Lake Arrowhead."

He whistles.

"Long drive," he says.

Once I've signed them in and paid the entry fees, I search out Logan, catching him as he rounds the corner of the gym at an even jog. He's worked up a sweat, though he's not breathing heavily, the sign of an athlete in shape.

"Did you use the bathroom?" I ask.

"Yeah, but I barely had to go."

I look at my watch.

"Better quit running," I say. "There's only 20 minutes left for weigh-ins."

"I don't think I'll make it."

"So you wrestle up a division. It's no big deal," I say. "You're tough."

"Yeah," he says. "Except that kid from Norwalk goes one-tens."

He's referring to the boy who beat him for first place at an earlier tournament. It was a close match, Logan leading by two points going into the last round when he took a chance, made an error, and the other kid capitalized on it.

I try to be upbeat. I try to turn his self-doubt around on him.

"That's good," I tell him.

"Why?"

"Because you need the competition. You learn more from your losses, not your wins. Besides, you'll get him this time."

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