The staging area is a musky rectangular room packed with a couple hundred bodies bouncing in circles and pacing back and forth like caged animals. There are many hundred more waiting upstairs for their time to come.
It’s a dim room with low ceilings, and it heats up quickly as the opening rounds of the tournament get under way. With 1A-2A, 3A, 4A, 5A and 6A brackets running simultaneously, the Memorial Coliseum is abuzz for the two-day state wrestling championships. The staging area is used to pair competitors correctly before they are escorted onto the floor for their matches.
Some wrestlers ease their nerves in the room by chatting with teammates and sizing up their opposition: Who will be trying to slam their face on the mat in a few minutes and what are they doing to get ready? The serious ones, on the other hand, aren’t concerned with anyone else. They’re the guys sitting alone with their eyes closed, walking calmly around the room or shadow wrestling in the corner; battling through the final round against the best opponent imaginable.
In a tournament of this size, it’s one long waiting game. Your first match is anywhere from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and your next won’t be for several more hours. That means a whole lot of time sitting in the stands waiting, watching and thinking.
About an hour before your match you get called from general seating to the staging area. From there you know you’re finally up when tournament staff raise two white cards; one with your last name, weight and school on it, the other with someone else’s.
That’s when nerves kick in and heart rates rise. An entire season –– for some an entire high school career –– rests on what happens in the next few minutes. It’s the beauty, and often the pain, of the sport: countless hours of hard work and dedication, sacrifice, blood, sweat and tears, condensed into just a few intense minutes of competition.
An escort leads you and your opponent out of the staging area, through the stadium doors and into the wide open and unnerving expanse of the arena. Your coach is at your side as you walk to the mat of your assignment, and his presence brings some grounding to the overwhelming contrast of being whisked from the muffled cave-like staging area to the bright echoing openness of the coliseum floor. It’s 12 mats side-by-side surrounded by the towering rows of seating and the cheering of thousands of fans.
You feel like a gladiator about to do battle, and it is truly the experience of a lifetime.
There’s little time between matches, so as soon as the one before yours is over, you tear off your warm-ups and step onto the mat, trying not to notice the reaction of the guy who just lost –– state champion dreams broken by his opponent.
At this point, nerves have given way to electric energy and pure adrenaline. It’s cold, but you’re dripping sweat. It’s loud but your hearing is muted. It’s bright, but everything outside of your little circle fades away.
The referee calls you to the center of the mat, where you are given two Velcro bands to put around your ankles. These are to help keep track of points. As simple of a task as it is, this takes you a few tries because your hands are sweaty and shaking. Green has always been your lucky color, and as luck has it you get green and your opponent red.
5 … 4 … 3… 2 … 1 … and everything goes silent.
You shake hands and go to battle. And win or lose, you leave it all on the mat. That’s what wrestling is all about.
(Editor’s note: Adam Lapierre was a 4A state wrestling champion in 1999.)