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By Vin Gallo

THEY'RE ALL UP THERE.

All of them are on the wall outside of wrestling head coach Jason Holder’s office. Above the maroon carpeting of Springfield College’s PE Complex hallway hang the plaques. The plaques of the Pride’s All-American wrestlers from the past.

Jeff Blatnick, a Greco Roman Olympic gold medalist, three times in a row, from 1977-79. Andy Goodwin, Eric Gould, and Ryan Kalman, all in 1997. Then Springfield’s most recent, Dylan Foley, in 2014.

The older plaques are tinted a light, aged yellow on a wood frame. The newer ones are bright – the wood shiny; sleek with a gold inner outline that surrounds a milky white certificate. Though they each carry the same historic and honorary weight.

Adjacent to Holder’s office is the entrance to the Doug Parker Wrestling Room, a maroon door that lets out a high-pitched squeak as each wrestler enters for practice at 4:15 p.m.

“Klink” by Smino is already bumping from the boombox speakers in the corner as the Pride line up and start a game of handball to get the blood going. There’s no hold-up. The wrestlers dive all over the floor, batting a small blue ball off the wall.

“Damn!” screams Seve Burgos as his first attempt rolls short off his palm.

Kearney Gutierrez sits back and laces up his wrestling shoes as his teammates charge towards the purple-crimson padding.

It’s a Wednesday in mid-February. New England Regionals are on Saturday and Sunday. Holder doesn’t plan to keep his student athletes long. An hour at most. Practice today is for keeping them sharp while avoiding too much strain.

“A lot of people look down upon the sport because of what we have to do,” says Gutierrez. “But there’s a lot of good things that come out of (wrestling), a lot of lessons learned a lot of things people pick up.”

In walks the Pride’s coach.

“Guys, watch out!” Burgos calls. “It’s slim Holder!”

“I’m gonna kick your ass today, Seve!” Holder razzes as he joins the handball line.

Everything happening in the room is in good fun. Then 4:30 arrives.

“All right, let’s get after it.”

First a jog. The Pride will throw a football around to keep it light-hearted for a little longer. Then comes push-ups. Then crouches. Then sprints.

Sweat is already shining on Aarin Feliz’s face as the senior runs across the mat.

“The mental preparation … will prepare me for anything I go through in life,” he says. “Anything and everything as far as adversity and challenges. How do I get myself right if I’m having a tough day? Get over it. You need to focus on this now, you need to focus on the task at hand.”

Holder calls out situations as the Pride execute their approaches – cautiously leading one another to the ground on the takedowns and holding their pins.

“15 seconds, you’re down one!” shouts Holder.

“1:30 left, 1:30 left!”

“45! 45!”

The scent of perspiration strengthens with each passing minute. After 50 minutes, the wrestlers’ sweatpants and long sleeve tees are soaked in sweat. But that isn’t the end of it. Bike reps are still left.

When practice finally finishes, Holder gathers his team in front of a white board -- motivation scrawled all over it in Expo marker.

He gives them a quote to remember for regionals.

“There is only the fight, the foe, this man, and the next.”

Gutierrez paces back and forth, taking the time to catch his breath before sitting and sliding towards the wall.

“There’s no one else there on the mat with you,” Gutierrez says. “I think that’s the big thing.”

***

While the wrestling team blares its rotation between classic rock and rap in the Doug Parker room, the loud ‘thuds’ of feet landing on mats come from further down the hall.

The men’s and women’s gymnastics teams have their own hidden abode in Kresge Gymnasium. The corridor beyond Dana Gym, narrows into a nook-like area – where, much like the wrestlers, the feats of Springfield College’s greatest gymnasts hang on the wall.

Directly outside of Kresge’s doors, sits a trainer’s table worked by athletic trainers. Almost like clockwork, Springfield’s gymnasts rotate in and out of the doors for treatment. One after the other.

A gymnast might even visit the table more than once a practice. Sometimes they’ll have their ankles taped. Other times they’ll have any knots massaged out. Ice is supplied in a red water cooler. The goal is to always stay loose, to always stay healthy.

A call comes from inside the gym.

“If you need to stretch anything out, stretch it out. If you need to roll anything out, roll it out.”

For some Pride gymnasts, utilizing the table can be an adjustment. Because not everyone had one to turn to in high school.

A sprained pinkie? No problem. A sore shoulder? Work through it. Keep going.

Practices would be long: for four, five hours a day during the week. It depends on the size of the gymnastics program, but if it’s a smaller one, gymnasts might train completely alone.

Jess Clemens has fond memories of competing in high school. Yet there would be points where the repetitiveness -- and rigorousness of the intense training, day after day -- would wear on her.

“If I had to redo my year of high school or do one more year of gymnastics, I don’t know if I’d be able to do it. It takes such a toll on you,” Clemens said. “You’re practicing for four and a half hours a day, five and a half hours a day. You couldn’t pay me to go back to that.”

To a certain extent, the intensity of the marathon practices in high school is what is needed to perfect a sport that demands perfection. It’s a mindset gymnasts grow up on through the sport. Because it’s just you and the mat.

“You’re using [only] your body,” Clemens said. “It’s not like you’re throwing a ball or learning how to use a piece of equipment that’s doing the work for you. You have to do all the work yourself.”

Working on their craft, in some cases virtually alone, can take a toll on gymnasts. Clemens enjoyed the increased voices of encouragement during both practice and competition. There simply weren’t many in the gym when competing in high school.

“The team aspect of it is huge,” Clemens said. “It is such an individual sport, before you get to college. I never really had a team (before Springfield) – it was just me and one other girl. (In high school) no one’s there to cheer; it’s silent when you’re competing.”

Next to high school gymnastics, the dynamics and norms of collegiate gymnastics can be completely different.

Yet when it comes to individual competition, conditioning and self-care is a principle to succeeding.

Wrestling, especially when it comes to cutting weight, is often misconstrued. Some wrestlers call it a ‘marginalized sport.’ Slimming down to a specific weight class is commonly thought to be achieved by cruel tactics -- by means of extreme fasting, or the starving of oneself.

It even takes some young wrestlers time to understand its nature. In high school, Gutierrez remembers his approach to making weight as being completely wrong. In ninth and 10th grade, meets would be scheduled for Friday or Saturday. Gutierrez ate whatever he chose between Monday and Wednesday. Then, he would ‘cut down a lot.’

“I remember not going to lunch (the rest of the week),” Gutierrez said. “Now I’m smarter about it. It comes (across) as a lot easier.”

“You just adapt. At the beginning of the year, every year, it kind of sucks, making that first weight. But it’s a part of the sport. You just develop a mentality to perform at that weight.”

The common misconception towards weight-cutting is the belief that wrestlers cannot eat or drink when attempting to hit the requirement for weight classes. The key lies more so in keeping an exceptional metabolism.

“If you understand yourself and do it right, you can eat and drink,” Feliz said. “Workouts … don’t have to be the most intense things, but you have to find a way to keep your metabolism going.”

Feliz eats four to five times a day, while drinking at least a half gallon of water. He approaches making weight with the goal of getting his heart rate up quickly, and keeping it up. An elevated heart rate equals more sweat, and more calories burned.

“You can (eat),” Feliz said. “Most of the time we’re so stubborn … we’re set in the traditional ways of ‘you can’t eat, you can’t drink.’ Because that’s what everyone in the past did. There wasn’t enough data or research done on nutritional components of wrestling. Now that there is, there’s ways to get around to eating.”

“You can’t lose what you don’t have. You can’t use energy if you don’t have energy.”

***

5 a.m.

Feliz’s friend would be able to get him into his local LA Fitness if he got there before six. As a high schooler, he’d wake up five times a week to go. Then, he would shower and go to school.

It got easier once Feliz got his license. On top of driving him each morning, Feliz’s father, Miguel was sure to buy his son chicken to help give him protein.

Miguel never cared what it was -- he just wanted Aarin to be a part of something. It turned out to be wrestling.

Aarin started to wrestle in sixth grade. Before starting the sport, he was a self-described, ‘short and fat little kid’ who was tired of running around a soccer field. Yet during his first few years competing in middle school wrestling, he’d always look to run around a local apartment complex, just to get a sweat in to cut weight.

It was a sport that motivated him. Outside of his family, Feliz calls wrestling the most impactful thing he’s participated in.

Strength is part of the sport. Agility is another part of it. Speed, coordination, balance, flexibility. You have to have a combination of a little of everything. But that combination doesn’t guarantee success.

“The guys who do well … are the ones who are strongest with the six inches between their ears,” Feliz said. “They may not be the most skilled but … (if) something wrong happens, they get up, they keep moving.”

Feliz remembers being a sophomore in high school, wrestling in districts at the end of the year with six screws and a plate in his ankle. He had fractured it playing football and was supposed to have been out for the season.

In his first match since breaking his ankle, Feliz heard it from his coach first.

“You have the No. 3 seed.”

Up against one of the top talents in New Jersey, Feliz himself, was unseeded.

He won the match.

But wrestling is very up and down. Three years later, Feliz was wrestling as a freshman for Springfield, and entering his first tournament with this team at Ithaca College.

Going into the weekend, Feliz thought he could win a couple.

He went 0-for-2.

“After that, I thought to myself, ‘I’m gonna quit,’” Feliz said. “‘That shouldn’t have happened, why did that happen?’ I was so upset with myself, and in that moment I was like, ‘You are not going to give up.’”

A few weeks later, after 200 pushups, 15 sprints, and 100 crunches a day, Feliz competed in the Doug Parker Invitational. He placed sixth.

“You need to leave your ego at the door, because you’re going to get beat,” Feliz said. “You’re going to get taken down. How are you going to respond? If you get too high on your horse, there is someone there who will be glad to remind you what it’s like to be back on Earth.

We’re very fortunate that we have guys in (Springfield’s program) who are very talented. So they’ll put you back on Earth. We all know what it’s like.”

Gymnastics is just as up and down. A gymnast can feel like they’re on a role, in a sport where it’s considered best to learn early, because of the unawareness of the difficulty and danger of certain routines.

That doesn’t prevent the occasional freeze-ups.

“You can come in one day and a skill that you’ve been doing for years – and something in your brain just forgets how to do it,” Clemens said. “People get mental blocks all the time … something you’ve done for years all of a sudden feels scary.

You can think you’re in a really good spot … but it’s so up and down that you just never know.”

***

As a cross country runner, Tyler Cronin’s season is year round. There is no offseason. He needs to run every day, including throughout the summer, to stay in shape for competition.

It can take years for someone’s body to adjust to the demand of running long distance. Runners collapsing to the ground or needing to vomit after finishing their field is not unusual.

“It’s definitely (a matter of) adapting to it,” Cronin said. “You have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. All the time. It’s hard for some people to imagine. It’s definitely an acquired feeling, an acquired taste.”

When competing for a team individually, there’s a reality that is unavoidable. In baseball, pitchers have their fielders behind them to make a play on a batted ball. Basketball players can shake off a cold streak by clearing their minds on the bench.

But for athletes who compete solo, teammates cannot pick up the slack for them.

“This? This is all you,” Cronin said. “There’s no one who can run for you, there’s no one who can give you that drive. You have to have it.”

Whether in review or conversation, it’s normal for narratives in sports to gravitate to the same spot of judgment.

Analytics.

What does the competitor look like on paper? What are the numbers? Are they the fastest? Are they the strongest? Are they the more athletic?

That all can go without mentioning a word about sports psychology. It can be a forgotten dimension of athletic competition.

The endless self-talk. The need to convince oneself that they are better than their competitor.

“You have to tell yourself that you’ve worked so hard for this and that you’ve done everything you can,” Cronin said. “Because when you get the thought that you’re not feeling good, the thought that your competitors are stronger than you, you will lose the race. It’s not easy.”

If an athlete isn’t feeling good about their game, it’s easy for a healthy mentality to plummet. That’s where the team aspect comes through -- whether that’d be celebrating a successful routine, a pin, or a new personal best time.

“That’s what you have teammates for,” Cronin said. “‘I believe in you.’ That’s huge.”

***

There’s times when, following a meet, Clemens will open Twitter and find a little number circled in blue above her direct message envelope icon. And it will be a message of encouragement or congratulations, or both, from a gymnast on a team she had just competed against.

“There’s so few of us that have gymnastics at our school, especially in DIII,” Clemens said. “There’s such a DIII community (in) gymnastics. People will reach out to each other all the time and are just so friendly at meets ... We don’t have any rivals or anything. We all have friends on different teams.”

There is a similar level of respect that can be found within the collegiate wrestling competition. According to Feliz, a wrestler has respect for anyone who steps onto the mat. Whether they are a starter, national champion, or someone who has yet to win a match in his career.

It doesn’t matter.

“There’s a reason why we shake hands at the beginning and end of a match. It’s out of a sign of respect,” Feliz said. “No matter how the match goes, who wins, who loses by however much. It’s a sign of, ‘I understand what you went through.

I can only imagine what you went through.’”

On top of competing individually, Feliz has adopted a mindset that starts in practice, about the extra factors of mentality that must be brought to matches. To him, as an athlete, he needs to separate himself from his student life as soon as training starts.

“No one cares what goes on out there,” Feliz said. “And people, they don’t care what goes on in here. And sometimes that’s the best part, you have two different worlds. This one is different. (As an athlete) you can be a different version of you.”

Unlocking that version of oneself comes down to one factor.

In gymnastics.

“It’s all mental,” Clemens said.

In cross country.

“It’s entirely mental,” Cronin said.

In wrestling, and any individual sport -- where it’s just the athlete, the six inches between their ears, the fight, the foe, the competition, and the next.

“The ones who are strongest in their heads are the ones who can do the best out here,” Feliz said.

The boombox in the corner of the Doug Parker Wrestling Room has been turned off. There’s no more Smino bumping, no more diving for a handball on the floor, where the sweat of an hour long battle has been washed away with cleaner within minutes.

It’s empty and silent. The last practice before regionals is in the books.

A shirtless Feliz walks across the maroon mat, alone.

Less than 30 minutes ago, he and his teammates were drenched in sweat. But nothing will compare to the real competition.

“That’s an easy one,” Feliz says, gesturing towards where he had just fought.

“That’s an easy one.”

Credits:

Photo credits to Sam Leventhal (sleventhalmedia.com) and Springfield College Athletics.

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