John Irving said of wrestling, “I’ve always admired the rule that holds you responsible, if you lift your opponent off the mat, for your opponent’s safe return.”
After the recent announcement that the wrestling program at St. Olaf will be dropped following the upcoming season, I found myself wishing that the administration at St. Olaf had lived by Irving’s words.
I was a member of the St. Olaf wrestling team from 1999-2003. I was the captain of the team for two years and was a three time academic all-American. Today, I work as an actor, writer and director in New York City.
The wrestling team at St. Olaf has always been on the chopping block. When my older brother was a senior at Olaf in 1998, the program was cut and the team dramatically dropped their letter jackets at the front of the president in protest. Shortly after, it was discovered that keeping the wrestling team actually costs virtually nothing and could be supported almost completely by donations from alumni, and thus the program was restored. If it had not been, I almost certainly would not have ended up there.
But even after the program was salvaged, there was little support for wrestling from the athletic department. The wrestling room, a modest space to begin with, was never improved, the coaching staff’s hours diminished and cuts were repeatedly made to the already tiny wrestling budget, making recruiting virtually impossible. And some such cuts were made the year after the team finished second in the conference tournament. So it is difficult to argue that these decisions were based on performance.
No doubt there were reasons for the cuts. Wrestling did not bring in crowds. We did not win conference titles. Having a perennial national champion like Augsburg in the conference surely had something to do with that. But because we were not in the spotlight, there was something intrinsically pure about being a wrestler at St. Olaf. The athletes involved were doing it because they genuinely loved the craft and its pursuit.
I remember reading the biblical story of Jacob wrestling the angel in a Great Conversation class and then heading to practice immediately afterward and feeling the ancient words taking shape in my body in real time.
After St. Olaf, a post-graduate scholarship from the NCAA given for excellence on the mat and in the classroom helped pay for my first year of graduate school. And many of my former teammates have gone on to become leaders in their communities. I know each of them would tell you that the lessons learned in the wrestling room contributed greatly to their successes.
It is also worth noting that according to the The National Federation of State High School Associations, enrollment in high school sports (especially football) is on the decline, but wrestling is actually growing in popularity. And women’s wrestling programs are popping up across the country in record numbers – especially in states like Minnesota.
So why is the wrestling team being eliminated? Dwindling team numbers have been cited as the reason. But one has to ask how much that has to do with the amount of support wrestling was ever given in the first place. Perhaps there is a financial opportunity to be had by converting the wrestling room into something more lucrative. I fully appreciate the difficult realities of running a small liberal arts college in today’s world, but if we measure all things in that way, programs like wrestling will continue to die. One would hope that at a liberal arts institution, there would be a recognition that not all treasure is meant to draw a monetary profit. And a program or department can only grow when it is nurtured.
I fell in love with the sport of wrestling during my time on the Hill, and I will mourn the loss of the pure, ancient sport that taught me discipline, patience, self-reliance and honor. But mostly, I am sad that my alma mater does not value this thing I love enough to return it safely to the mat after having lifted it up in the first place. Pure things are hard to come by. And in today’s world, it is more important than ever to protect such things. I only wish St. Olaf shared that point of view. I ask the administration to please reconsider this decision.
Alex Morf ‘03 is from Mount Vernon, Iowa. His majors were English and theater.