EVERETT — Burke Barnes enjoyed a stellar career as a competitive wrestler. He won four state championships at Lake Stevens High School, and then placed third twice and second twice at the NAIA national championships while representing Dana College in Blair, Neb.
Wrestling gave him a lot in those years. And now, Barnes has decided, it’s time to give back.
Combining his love of wrestling and his passion for working with children, the 28-year-old Barnes has formed the Pin City Wrestling Club. Operating most of the year at Lake Stevens High School, but also with spring clubs in Seattle and on Vashon Island, Pin City has been home to more than 1,000 young wrestlers since its inception a few years ago, Barnes said.
The club seeks to teach children as young as 5 about wrestling, he went on, while also focusing on life lessons such as hard work, commitment and discipline. Academics are stressed, too, and there is an emphasis on reaching at-risk youngsters.
Scholarships are available for low-income children “because I don’t want to eliminate anyone,” Barnes said. “I want to provide all the opportunities that I had to these other (less fortunate) kids.”
Most youngsters have a natural enjoyment and knack for wrestling, even before they start formal workouts, Barnes pointed out. After all, many have been playfully rolling around on the floor with siblings and friends.
“They’ve been doing a lot of the movements and skills their whole lives,” he said, “so they take to it pretty well. And in our club, we want the kids to have fun, to enjoy it. Our kids are always laughing and smiling.”
To this point, Barnes has volunteered his time as Pin City’s executive director. The club’s modest budget comes largely from participant fees, occasional fund-raisers, the sale of club gear and sometimes from Barnes’ own pocket.
But he is also seeking sponsorships and grants so Pin City can expand to other locations, including a campaign to start four clubs in Seattle, where wrestling has languished for years.
“We want to do some bigger things,” he said, “so now it’s time for us to find some funding.”
Joining his son as Pin City’s coaching director is Lake Stevens High School wrestling coach Brent Barnes, who knows the benefit of giving children early exposure to the sport.
“When you look at our (high school) team,” Brent Barnes said, “so many of the kids started at a young age. Now that doesn’t mean that you can’t be good if you start later on, but it does give you a little bit of a head start, no doubt about it.”
A good model for a club in the Puget Sound area, he went on, is the Beat the Streets program in New York, which began with a wrestling club at one middle school and has since grown to around 50 schools.
“If you can offer a reasonable activity for a reasonable price, and maybe even for free, and if you can prove this activity is helping kids learn self-discipline and get their grades up and feel better about themselves … then it has great potential,” Brent Barnes said.
What clubs like Beat the Streets and Pin City are doing “is giving kids great self-esteem,” he said, “and that’s the most empowering thing about sports and the most empowering thing about wrestling.”
“And I think Burke is the right guy,” he added. “You’d probably expect me to say that because he’s my son. But even though he’s my son, I think you’d have to search high and low for a guy who has as much passion for the sport and for kids as he does. I really hope he can make this thing go because I think a lot of people are going to benefit from this.”
Pin City’s top priority, Burke Barnes said, “is that we’re trying to help kids.” And wrestling is a great avenue toward that goal, he added, “because anyone can do it. It can be kids who are fat, tall, skinny or short. And it can be girls, too.
“You can be the slowest person in the world, but you can still be successful at wrestling through hard work,” he said.