It is wonderful to be back on this beautiful campus and truly an honor to be here under these circumstances. There are so many familiar faces and old friends here tonight. When Jeff Pilgrim informed me that I would be given the opportunity to speak tonight, I started to think about how I say something about the six years I spent at Williston in 5-10 minutes. While mulling it over, I realized that my feelings about the experiences I had here could be summed up in one word: Gratitude.
First, I am grateful for Tom Bly. As Tom mentioned, I came to a lot of home meets as a spectator when I was in grade school. I got to see some of the original wrestlers: Nate Zwirko, Chris Root, James Zurcher, and Jun Son. What he may not remember is that at one of those matches, he came up into the bleachers to introduce himself to me. To have this fiery coach in the corner come tell me, a weak little kid with a blond bowl cut, that he was excited to have me come wrestle for him was the start of something special. Bly was a wrestling fanatic, and would take us all over, as far as Fargo, North Dakota, to train and compete with the best. And he was invested in his athletes as people. When I get together with the old guys from the wrestling team, Bly inevitably comes up, and we always agree that we are better men today for having come under his guidance. Tom Bly was like a third parent to me, and I am forever grateful for his influence on my life. I will always look to him as a role model and a friend.
When Tom moved over to Ludlow, I was grateful that Matt KaneLong stepped right in. Like Tom, Matt is a wrestling fanatic, which was perfect for me. And also like Tom, he is a deeply kind and committed educator and mentor. I remember coming early to the gym many days, sitting in the corner with Coach KaneLong as he shared invaluable, and hilarious, life lessons. One thing that always has stood out to me about Matt is his ability to connect kids who may be a little harder to reach. He is able to get those kids who maybe face more challenges and questions about who they are, and makes them part of the group. The sense of togetherness he creates is contagious. I am happy to say that to this day, Matt is my friend and mentor.
In addition to my mentors, I am grateful to have known all of my teammates at Williston. From the guys I looked up to when I was starting, like Jun, Will Lopes, Devin Koller, Brett Kassels, Jon Woodward, Dave Michaelson, to guys I competed alongside (Mark Foresi, Tyler Oleksak, Geoff Pollitt, Andy Starr, Mitch Lopes, Nick Annino, Jon Halford, Zamian Charles, Tosin Onafowakin, Tomi Uyehara, Sam Astor, Des Ryan, and Jeff Steinberg), it was an honor. I got to see some great moments from those guys:
- Foresi and Oleksak winning in the 1999 New England finals to clinch the team title in a huge upset over Andover
- Nick Annino, in his first match as a freshman, beating the senior defending New England champion from Hopkins, CT in overtime
- Mitch Lopes pinning a previously undefeated wrestler to win the state title as a freshman in our home gym, before he was carried off the mat. Mitch also beat National champion twice in the same weekend when he was a junior.
- Tomi Uyehara coming back from a broken humerus to win the New England title and be named an All-American the following year
And aside from the Glory Days moments, we probably had more fun than anyone.
I am also grateful to the athletic department. The outstanding trainers here put us back together when we took each other apart. Jay and Melissa came to the rescue on more than one occasion. The athletic directors, Rick Francis and then Coach Conroy, couldn’t have been more supportive.
Outside of athletics, I am grateful to all of the faculty and staff at this great school. Fun fact: our former headmaster, Denny Grubbs, was a big wrestling fan. One time we were competed at Deerfield, Geoff Pollitt pinned his opponent and amid the applause a fan is cheering with enough extra enthusiasm that it drew some of our attention. Sure enough, when we looked up into the stands, there was our headmaster, Mr. Grubbs, expressing his approval. I am also grateful that I was not pigeonholed into jock culture. The atmosphere at Williston let blend with all different types of students, from the US and from all over the world.
And, of course, I am especially grateful to my parents and family for giving me a loving and supportive home life growing up. I competed in literally hundreds of wrestling meets from Topeka to Germany, and I can count on one hand the number of matches my folks couldn’t attend. Wrestling is popular in a lot of remote places, and they spent many years sitting on metal bleachers in far away towns. I also get the feeling I could have lost all my matches and they would still say they were proud. I could not ask for a better situation when it comes to my family.
Outside of wrestling, I am also grateful for meeting Larissa Bates here, who is now my wife and the mother of my daughter, Pilar. We met just as she graduated, but Larissa has been a tremendous partner and friend, who has supported me in many facets of my life, including wrestling. Nowadays, when I get the urge every couple of years to enter a tournament and compete against guys trying to make the Olympics, despite my own lack of training, she is encouraging.
Finally, I have a piece of advice for young athletes that has made sense to me since I have been competing less and coaching more. Though it may seem counter intuitive, I would say this: forget about winning, and develop an abstract concept of success. Buvaisar Saitiev, my favorite Russian wrestler, recites this Boris Pasternak quote often:
“I don’t think being famous is very attractive. That is not what lifts you up. You don’t have to build an archive. You don’t have to panic over your number of volumes. The object of a masterpiece is giving yourself away.”
Perhaps the pursuit of a personal truth is more meaningful than checks in the win column.
So as you can see, there is a lot for which I am grateful. As a parent, when I think about what I want for my own daughter, I have a couple of hopes:
- That she finds great mentors that shape her values and sense of purpose, like I had in Tom Bly and Matt KaneLong
- That she finds a school and community like I found here at Williston, where she can discover her passion and, as Pasternak would say, give herself away.
- That my wife and I can give her the type of supportive and loving home that my family gave me.
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