Human spirit rises above any situation

This article was originally published in North County News.

It was his second match in his first meet ever. Weighing in at 53 pounds, 8-year-old Sam shook his opponent’s hand and the wrestling began.

But before Sam could even get set in his stance, he was on his back. The kid shot a double, a two-legged takedown that sent Sam to the mat, hard. Stunned, Sam squirmed and twisted, wiggled his way out, and made it back to his feet.

The kid shot in again, grabbed one leg and spun Sam around, gaining control. This time, a cross-face move missed, crossing Sam’s throat instead. His headgear slipped down, covering his eyes as he wildly tried to break free to breathe and see. The ref called the errant move, rescuing Sam for the moment.

Sam staggered up, holding his throat while readjusting his headgear. Red-faced and on the verge of tears, Sam looked desperately toward his coach then the bleachers for help. But the kid was coming at him again.

“Come on, Sam!” we all cried. Sam stood there, breathing hard and terrified.

We’d seen it before. At this age, the intensity of the sport often overwhelms the kids, and they melt down. The matches are often stopped so the child can regain composure.

We’ve heard the ref say to the little guys, “Don’t cry unless you are hurt.” That’s a tough one to hear. We would have understood if that happened with Sam. It was obvious his opponent was a tough, aggressive and more experienced wrestler.

But this time, the match would not be stopped.

As the kid shot in on Sam, Sam came back at him, lunging forward and tying him up with his hands. With heads and hands locked, the kid pushed into Sam.

Sam pushed back. The kid tried to swing Sam to the side. Sam held on and swung the kid to the other side, breaking the hold and quickly getting behind him, taking him down.

The crowd roared. His teammates jumped to their feet. The coach was air-born, then flat-faced, down at mat-level shouting sound-bite instructions.

Sam was back in the game.

For the next four minutes and fifteen seconds, we witnessed perhaps one of wrestling’s poorer displays of technique and skill, yet by far its richest display of heart and courage. Plagued with slinging and slamming and illegal holds and errant moves, the match continued as the score mounted and ended with a tie, 21-21.

In overtime, Sam lost. In our hearts, though, Sam won.

Clearly outmatched, he brought what he had of skill and will to the mat, refused to be a victim, and met his challenge head on. As I watched Sam battle back, I was struck by his blatant shift from victim to victor.

My father calls it moving “from pity to power.” I’ve learned it’s a valuable survival skill that can serve us well both on and off the mat.

Life can put us on the mat, unprepared for the challenges before us. We are often taken down, time and again, sometimes unfairly as we struggle to keep on our feet and stay in the game. The headgear of pain often descends upon our face, blinding us to a clear direction in which move. We struggle to breathe as we look to our coaches and our bleachers for support.

As we stand there, red-faced and terrified, we recognize that the match is ours to win or lose. We could melt down and be justified in doing so.

Or we can go deep in our hearts to find the will to come back. We can adjust our headgear, put our pain and fear to the side and get back in the game.

We can move from pity to power. We can bring what we have of skill and will to the mat, refuse to be a victim and meet our challenge head on.

Sam Sunderland is a second grader at St. Paul’s School. He wrestles for the North Baltimore Wrestling Club.