What makes a champion?

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You’re going to have to slap this silly grin off my face. I can’t help myself. Behind this smile is a reason. Behind every win, there’s a story.

We came home from the Colorado state wrestling tournament with the state championship win. It’s always the story behind the win that intrigues me. What does it take to get to that coveted place? It doesn’t just happen without a lot of adversity, disappointment and character building.

It takes a lot of hard work, sweat, tears, opportunities, shut doors, close calls, and praying mothers and grandmothers. It also takes the right people on your path to encourage, teach and help you believe in yourself.

After my grandson’s win, our daughter said, “Look around us, we are surrounded by all the men who helped Creede get to this championship. They are here at the Pepsi Center.”

There were his coaches, Dan Janowsky, Michael Martinez and Keith Candelaria. Coach Rob McCabe, who was Creede’s coach last year, and his little boy, Jackson, flew from Florida to Denver to watch the team wrestle. There were his football coaches, Mike Kelly and Scott Spoede who came that night. A few of his sparring partners: Fonzie Hernandez, Bubba Martinez and Myron Stretton made the trip to Denver. His brother, dad, and granddad were there and the whole wrestling team was cheering him on.

The win was a team effort. Creede put in the work and extra effort, but it was all those who gave their expertise and encouragement who need to know what we all know — that he couldn’t have gotten there without them.

There were friends and family who spent four days together cheering on the six wrestlers from Pagosa. One of the mothers was wearing a t-shirt that read, “When you watch your son wrestle, everything else in life is easy.”

That’s the truth. It’s the longest six minutes you can imagine. You’re pushing, shoving, leaning, covering your eyes, twisting, turning and yelling from the stands, while your wrestler is straining and fighting to win. Then there’s the heartbreak when their son doesn’t win. Some boys run off the mat holding back tears. You want to cry for them, too, but you catch your breath and go through the same acrobatic cheering routine for the next young man on the team. It is exhausting!

At an earlier tournament, I smiled when I heard Michael Martinez’s comment to one of the wrestlers who was crying. He said, “Stop crying. You don’t have anything to cry about.”

Those were tough words, but the truth. If you remember Michael’s story, he was kicked in the jaw by a horse and went to practice anyway. In high school, his house burned down. He wrestled his match in a smoke-scented singlet. When his home exploded last year, he suffered burns over his body, but, with a champion’s spirit, he recovered.

Wrestlers seem to use t-shirts to pump up and speak their message, such as, “It took a decade in the making.” I guess one of the schools had been working at making a team for 10 years and was proud to tell it.

Another t-shirt read, “Every champion was once a contender that refused to give up.” I thought back over our 17-year-old grandson’s sports career. He’s had a rough haul before that Saturday night he stood on the podium and received the state championship award for Colorado.

His freshman year he was on his way to state when he got into a fight with a friend. The two boys were in the activities director’s office, both hugging and crying saying they were sorry. The director said he didn’t know whether to suspend the two boys or send Creede to state. He almost missed his first time going to state.

Sophomore year, during a football game, he was deliberately kicked by a young football player from another school. The other school was apologetic and the boy wrote a letter of apology. The coach recruited this young man to play football. He felt football was an answer for this rebellious youngster who had been in trouble with the law. It was an embarrassing moment for our grandson. However, he learned to forgive.

In his sophomore and junior season, he played both sports — football and wrestling — with a broken foot. He didn’t want to take off from sports to have the operation where they put in a titanium plate that was followed by a six-week recovery. He waited until the day after wrestling ended for the surgery and was the only one-legged discus thrower I have ever seen.

In the 2011 wrestling season, he couldn’t go to state because of a broken hand. In a fit of anger, he put his hand through a wall. He learned a very valuable lesson. It cost him state.

Last year, in 2013, he separated his shoulder at regionals and didn’t place well at state, but we were still full of pride watching him beat his first opponent with one arm taped down. His opponent went for his injured arm and I wanted to cry. It hurt me to watch, but he fought with one arm for his place in state.

Then there was the end of the football season of 2013, when he couldn’t finish the last two games of the season due to an infraction called by a referee. It cost him playing the rest of the game and the final game. He was one of the team’s captains and was banned from the field. He had grown up on the football field. It was his senior year and the last time he would play for the Pagosa Pirates. That was a heartbreak for him and his family. It built character and he learned that everything in life isn’t fair, but you’ve got to keep going.

One of his coaches told me at state, “Creede is an athlete. He is a strong athlete.”

I knew what he was saying. There are those who wrestle, play the game and move on to other things. Then there is an athlete. They have a burning desire inside of them, and after the win they go back to the gym and start working out again. They start practicing for the next challenge.

Then there was a special moment, which happened just a few days before our dear friend Mary Jo Janowsky passed on.

Our daughter and Creede were having lunch with Mary Jo. She was talking about getting her ticket for state. She said, “I don’t want to miss state. I have to get my tickets.”

She didn’t get to go to the state meet, but Creede remembered the conversation. On the back of the t-shirts, along with the six wrestlers’ names, the initials “MJ” with a halo was printed.

The team said, “She was our team’s light weight.”

Everyone knew her spirit was there watching over them. Our grandson practiced a tribute to her if he won. If you could have seen him at the end of his win, after his funny strut, the prancing around, a little dance and the hulk stance, Creede crossed his arms over his heart, made a swirl around his head, pointed his finger to heaven and pulled on his earlobe.

“That one was for you, Mrs. Janowsky.”

Final Brushstroke: The t-shirt doesn’t lie, “When you watch your son wrestle, everything else in life is easy.” When you’ve watched your grandson do the victory dance and receive the championship award, you forget the hurt and the pain of what it took to get him there.

State is fertile ground for young men to catch fire for next year’s championship. We watched a junior looking out over the coliseum as they rolled up the mats and tore them all down.

He turned and smiled, “I have a taste for next year; I’ll be back.”

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This story was posted on March 6, 2014.