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There’s no social distancing in wrestling: How the sport perseveres in Tri-Cities' high schools in a pandemic

Health and safety have been top of mind for high school wrestling coaches in the Tri-Cities, as they try to keep their athletes engaged during the COVID-19 pandemic
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Allan Mah, the coach of the wrestling team at Heritage Woods Secondary School, with some of his athletes, including Carter Zettel, Jonas McConville and Andy Wang.

There’s no doubt the past two years have been trying for high school athletes.

An entire academic year of competition was lost to the COVID-19 pandemic and the ever-changing landscape of public health restrictions has curtailed and cast doubt on many activities this year.

But likely no sport has borne the burden of trying to keep its athletes safe while also keeping them engaged than wrestling.

There’s no social distancing on the grappling mat.

Allan Mah, the wrestling coach at Heritage Woods Secondary School in Port Moody, said the public health crisis has created uncertainty, confusion and stress in his sport. 

Watching the case counts on the nightly news has become a barometer of whether his athletes can spar together in the gym or whether they must confine their workouts to running outside.

As those numbers dwindled through last summer, Mah said he was confident some sort of normal season could be convened after wrestlers were completely sidelined for the 2020–21 season. 

Then came the Delta and Omicron variants and, in December, public health orders banned all sports tournaments and BC School Sports issued a directive specifically limiting wrestling specifically to dual meets between athletes from no more than two schools.

Mah said the decisions were a blow, as tournaments are the foundation of the high school wrestling experience. Travelling to them is what brings teams together. They’re where up-and-coming wrestlings can build results that might get them noticed by a post-secondary program.

Still, Mah said, in a pre-season meeting School District 43 coaches had already decided to play it safe by not organizing any tournaments of their own, constructing a schedule based largely on dual meets, so the restrictions weren’t a death blow.

“It’s just baby steps,” Mah said. “That’s the best we can do.”

When he put the call out last November for kids interested in wrestling to attend a meeting, 20 showed up. That’s about twice the usual contingent.

Mah said he was pleasantly surprised. 

He figures an entire academic year without extracurricular activities had built up a demand for some sort of outlet. Even if some of the kids weren’t interested in competitive combat on the mats, having them train together and support each other was a positive sign.

“Some of the kids just don’t fit in to mainstream sports,” Mah said. “Without wrestling, they’d have a vacuum.”

And they’d still be learning valuable life lessons from the sport like team bonding, leadership, thinking on their feet and adapting to situations on the fly.

“Wrestling is about more than winning medals and getting points,” Mah said.

But when you’re a senior like Andy Wang, who only took up the sport when he was in Grade 10, results could be the ticket to his next step.

“It’s been hard,” he said of the diminished competitive opportunities. “People are still doing things in other sports but we’re treated differently. It doesn’t feel fair.”

Mah said his athletes are diligent about safety precautions. They perform their daily health checks and wear masks during training and when they’re working out in the combat gym.

“It can be awkward,” he said. “But they understand.”

Carter Zettel, a freshman who started wrestling when he was in middle school, said the inconveniences are outweighed by the benefits.

“I had been waiting to get back into sports,” he said of the downtime he endured through Grade 8. “This is a great way to stay in shape and be on a team.”

Jonas McConville, another freshman, said he’s trying to be patient.

“I’m hoping by senior year we’ll be able to do some proper tournaments and go on road trips. That’s my ultimate hope.”

Mah said while his athletes have been quick to accept all the measures to keep them safe, reassuring their parents has been another challenge. 

Since the start of training, he’s been sending out regular updates about what the kids are doing as well as any new information about protocols like where parents driving athletes to a meet can congregate.

Wang said that’s been a help.

“At the start they were really worried,” he said of his parents’ acceptance of his wrestling activities in the midst of a pandemic. “They trust me not to do dumb things.”

With signs the provincial health officer is beginning to ease some of the restrictions on various activities implemented last December to limit transmission of COVID’s highly contagious Omicron variant, Mah is hopeful school sports tournaments will be allowed again soon. 

That will give his charges time to kick into high gear their preparations for provincials that are scheduled to be held Feb. 24–26 at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver.

“We’re still crossing our fingers,” he said.