Wrestlers in St. Joseph County ready for 2021 competitions

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. - Organized indoor winter sports were hit hard by the pandemic in 2020 with basketball, wrestling and others seeing post seasons lost and tournaments canceled. 2021 was supposed to be the year those athletes look forward to as their next chance to compete. So far, some wrestling parents, coaches and athletes have said that is exactly what they are working towards. They also said wrestling a close-contact sport is safer than team sports like basketball or football.

"When they're competing, it's one-on-one," said Chad Harper, the president of Midwest Extreme Wrestling an organization that hosts wrestling camps for kids from all across Indiana and Michigan. "So, there's actually less contact with less people than you do say a basketball game where you have ten kids on the court for 25, 30 minutes. A wrestling match is only maybe three to five minutes long."

Harper said wrestling teams have had to find places to train and compete because of schools and gyms closing. He said the COVID-19 pandemic essentially left wrestlers practicing without competition.

"A lot of the competitions have been canceled at the national level, at the state level and even at the local level," Harper said. "A lot of what supports wrestling is that you have to rely on the public school systems, using the gyms, the high schools, the middle schools, and with that liability, they don't want outside clubs coming in there so it has impacted the sport."

From there, he said new safety measures were put into place out of an abundance of caution.

"When I think about wrestling when it comes to it is how we are always keeping our matts clean with that one," Harper said. "We always make sure, if you're sick, we don't allow you to come in and wrestle. We talk to all the wrestlers 'how are you feeling?' If they've got the sniffles or if they have a fever, we don't let them wrestle with that one. There's no reason to push it."

Harper said the matts get cleaned after every match and athletes are required to wear masks when they are not on the matt. Parents and coaches said the chance for their kids to compete again has noticeably lifted their spirits.

"They're a lot less depressed," said Josh Stith whose two sons are wrestlers. "They're happier. They're out here getting to do something they like to do."

Samuel Ocampo, a wrestling coach, said he agreed because the kids long for discipline and training.

"The biggest difference I see is they're happier," Ocampo said. "That's what I see because they enjoy it. They love the sport. They need to be pushed. They starve for discipline and hard work. It's hard to believe. There's all the people 'oh no they don't. They don't like it.' Yes, they do."

The wrestlers themselves said last year's cancellations were devastating and that getting back onto the matt has been a longtime coming.

It's exciting," said wrestler Ryann Schmidtendorff. "You need to wear a mask when you're walking around, but it's better than nothing."

"It's much better because last year we would be doing nothing, and now we do so much," said Brady Harper, another wrestler.

Chad Harper said this week he will be taking multiple teams of wrestlers to a tournament in Tennessee as competition has started to open up again.

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