To Ashland Middle School assistant wrestling coach Marty Downs, wrestling, at its most fundamental level, stripped of fat and nuance, is really just “one human being imposing their will upon another.”
Downs’ description likely rings true to anyone familiar with the sport, but it also happens to be an appropriate characterization of a man — in this case, Ashland High School wrestling coach Adam Turner — born into a wrestling family in a wrestling state who, after relocating to a place where the focus of his passion has rarely gained anything approaching local prominence, makes it his mission to turn the local high school into a wrestling powerhouse.
The only difference is that rather than imposing his will upon an opponent, Turner is leaning hard against the current of an entire town. And (upset alert!), he appears to be gaining ground.
Not yet three years after moving to Ashland from Seattle, Turner, the Grizzlies’ second-year head coach, has already established a youth wrestling club (the Junior Grizzlies), rebooted the middle school wrestling program and recruited a cadre of local men, among them Downs, who share his passion for the sport and are committed to the same lofty goal.
The vision, Turner says, is to build a foundation upon which the program can thrive. He knows that’ll take years, but the wheels are already in motion and gaining traction faster than anybody expected. When Turner and Justin Foss defected from the Phoenix youth program to create the Junior Grizzlies last fall, they had hoped for about 20 kids to sign up and were stunned when 55 ended up joining the first-year program. The next surprise came on Dec. 31 when a whopping 136 kids showed up for the Junior Grizzlies’ inaugural tournament, the Grizzly Growl.
Then about three weeks ago, the Ashland Middle School wrestling program, resuscitated after a long hiatus, gathered in a small mat room above the school’s main gym for its first practice of the season. Coaches Ben Chew, Nathan Helsel and Downs admitted they would have been happy had 12 wrestlers signed up. Thirty-seven did.
“Obviously, there’s an interest in the community,” said Turner, who reviews photos for Shutterstock. “I’m just happy we’re able to create the opportunity and give them a choice because wrestling is a sport that anyone can do. …Frankly, we’re just really surprised by the amount of kids that have come out and shown an interest and it’s really exciting for us, looking toward the future. We set this long-term vision and we’re excited that there’s support behind it. It feels like we’re gaining steam.”
“Maybe we’ll get there,” added Downs, a structural engineer who wrestled as a high schooler in West Virginia and later in the Army. “For me, I’m in it for the long term just to see if we can. I think it’d be kind of cool if we could actually, eight to 10 years from now, look back and see that we have more wrestlers than football players.”
In Turner, Ashland has a coach with wrestling in his blood. He and his three brothers all wrestled in high school and college at the University of Wisconsin, with his youngest sibling, Tyler, earning All-America honors in the 157-pound weight class. Their across-the-board success may surprise some — until, that is, they find out their father is a national Hall of Fame wrestling coach.
From Wisconsin, Turner and his wife, a physician, moved to Seattle for her fellowship. When it came time for their next move, the Turners’ top three choices — Cape Cod, Wisconsin and Ashland — all seemed like great fits. Ultimately, they decided to put down roots in southern Oregon.
Turner helped coach the University of Washington’s club team, a Seattle wrestling club and was an assistant coach at two high schools in Wisconsin, but Ashland High represents his first head coaching job. There’s a lot more off-the-mat work involved, he said, such as paperwork and communication with parents, but most of the job involves doing what he loves — teaching kids how to wrestle. He enjoys it so much, in fact, he does it for both the high school and the Junior Grizzlies, helping out with the youngsters about twice a week.
While Turner’s ecstatic about the community’s response to his attempt to lift the wrestling program out of its doldrums, he also understands the key to sustaining the momentum is to keep kids interested, a feeling that over time could evolve into serious commitment.
“We’re going to try to make it fun and not put too much pressure on them,” he said. “Right now, we have some pretty experienced sixth graders. So we’re looking at three more years until they’re here [at AHS]. What’s really exciting is, when they’re seniors — when the majority all have five to six years of wrestling experience at a minimum — that’s when we’ll see a big turnaround.”
Of course, that’s assuming today’s middle schoolers stick with the sport for a few more years. Chew, Helsel and Downs will bear most of that responsibility, and in an effort to retain the wrestlers they have they’ve employed Turner’s “make it fun” philosophy.
The middle school team’s rebirth can be traced back to last October, when Turner organized a wrestling class as a P.E. elective to feel out the school’s interest level. Cast a wide net, he figured, and see what happens. What happened was the class proved popular, and that success carried over to team sign-ups.
During a recent AMS practice, the makeshift wrestling room, which doubles as a weight room, was packed wall to wall with boys and girls (there are six) jostling for position during sparing sessions. The action was broken up every few minutes when one of the coaches chimed in with advice, brief demonstrations or a few encouraging words.
At one point, Downs showed how sloppy hand positioning could quickly lead to disaster. Riding Helsel, Downs reached across Helsel’s face, a mistake Helsel pounced on with a quick arm motion which led to a reversal. Downs was sure to explain the flip side of that equation, too:
“At the bottom end, if they give that to you just grab it and hold on for your life,” he said. “I mean, grab at both ends, get that hand across and don’t give it up because you’re going to get two points if you hold on to it.”
Later, eighth-grader Max Reade, one of the team’s best, shot for an opponent’s left leg, snared it and body slammed him to the mat.
Reade plays middle linebacker for the football team and thought wrestling would provide, if nothing else, an excellent opportunity to stay in shape. Turns out, he said, it’s a lot of fun, too.
“I like the physicality and I like how it can be a pretty even match if you know what you’re doing, even if you’re a lot smaller than the other person,” said Reade, who's tentatively planning to wrestle in high school. “It’s probably the most physically demanding sport I’ve done. It’s a really amazing workout.”
Chew, who owns CrossFit Ashland, said the sport has a lot to offer athletes like Reade who enjoy the battle of wills, but noted that sparring isn’t the only way to keep kids interested. The team’s workouts include game-type challenges, including variations of tag or king of the hill. In one tag game, those who are touched must freeze and assume a bridge position until a teammate crawls under them.
“I think 20 years ago, even at this age, there was a lot of pressure to cut weight, get in weight classes, to really compete hard,” Chew said. “We don’t put that kind of pressure on them. We let that kind of wait for high school. We let them build the love of the sport and learn some basic skills.”
Now the question is this: will all the boys and girls only recently introduced to the sport stick with it long enough to build that love and develop those skills?
Likely, a presidential election or two will take place before Turner’s vision can be fully realized. Still, for the man with the plan, there's little doubt what the future holds for Ashland wrestling.
“Wrestling has not been on the map here,” Turner said, “and I think we’re going to put it on the map.”
Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.