By Mike Whittlesey

I went to a wrestling meet and couldn’t believe the twisting, turning, gyrations and body contortions I witnessed. And the wrestlers? They were pretty good too!

Last week, seven wrestlers from Union High School competed at the State Wrestling Tournament in Des Moines. Fans of the Union Knights certainly have much to be proud of, as the “magnificent seven” handled themselves like champions throughout the three day event, humble in victory and gracious in defeat. Two Union wrestlers, Max Thomsen and Jacob Holschlag achieved the ultimate prize, a state championship. Yet there were no back flips, imaginary golf tee shots or gestures to the arena that screamed, “look at me” from the Knights when their victories were secured.

One of the moments I was most impressed with came shortly after Max Thomsen earned his third consecutive state championship. For some who watched Thomsen win every match of the season and pin his first three opponents of the tournament, another state championship was a foregone conclusion. His final match at State came against Andres Gonzalez of Clear Lake, described aptly enough by Union Head Coach Pat Hogan as a “big strong kid.” In this first meeting between the two, Gonzalez more than held his own and actually had a brief lead in the match, pushing Thomsen harder than perhaps any other wrestler in the state has all year. Minutes after Max had rallied for a 5-4 decision, the top eight wrestlers at 138 lbs. in Class 2A were taking their places on the podium. As he ascended to the top step, Thomsen reached out to shake Gonzalez’ hand. At a moment when no television cameras were rolling, no photographers snapping pictures, this simple gesture of respect and sportsmanship from one fierce competitor to another made a lasting impression and speaks volumes on the character this young man possesses. There is a reason why so few athletes in the history of Iowa high school wrestling have earned four state championships. Though Max may make it look easy at times, those of us who admire his achievements have no idea the amount of work and sacrifice it has taken him to reach such an elite level.

Okay, enough of the soapbox and back to contortions and gyrations. This was my first look at the State Tournament at mat level, and like most sporting events, the view up-close is much different than watching it on television. As the tournament progressed and there was more down time between matches involving Union wrestlers, I began to take notice of the drama of a different sort playing out on the periphery of the mat. The body language of the coaches was almost more interesting to watch than the wrestlers themselves. Believe me, there were a lot of passionate wrestling coaches gathered under one roof and some of them wouldn’t have to train very much to win a professional limbo competition.

As close matches moved into the third period, the leans that went left, right, forward and back became more pronounced. While some coaches preferred the tried an true method of leaning forward and shouting instructions through cupped hands, others simply could not help themselves. It was as if they could extricate their athlete from the grasp of an opponent if they just leaned far enough. So, with extra time on my hands and an empty memory card in the camera, I did what any responsible journalist would do. I started taking pictures of coaches. The resulting video slideshow is entitled “Competitive Fire: Coaching at the Iowa State Wrestling Tournament” and I invite you to logon to www.theprogressreview.co to view it.