Wrestling on the mat is just one part of Snohomish wrestling coach Rob Zabel’s job.
Another big part of the head coach’s duties is wrestling up attention at Snohomish — and its community — for the sport.
“It’s really no secret. It’s just a lot of hard work to get kids to come out,” Zabel said. “… It’s a really sad thing. We teach kids the importance of being a part of something and that there is honor and glory in a hard day’s work. Just teaching kids that that type of effort that will propel you through life.”
Not one of the “major” sports, wrestling has seen interest fluctuate in recent years, so much so that the International Olympic Committee recently removed it as an Olympic sport.
Zabel quickly notes that it has since been reinstated, in part, because of public support.
“There was such outcry that the International Olympic Committee put it back in the Olympics,” Zabel said. “It was a bit of a scare for us.”
Drumming up support for the wrestling program is always a challenge for Zabel. His goal is to get through to young students and try to convince them about the positives and fun one can have wrestling.
“It’s definitely a process,” Zabel said. “You have to really, really market and you have to get one or two kids that are going to always be there and always bring kids with them. You’ve got to get kids who are going to identify themselves as ‘wrestlers.’”
Zabel’s even come up with his own personal touch to implore interested athletes to come out for the wrestling team.
“When we get interest from a kid they get handwritten letters of encouragement from me to come out,” Zabel said.
Not all programs are as successful as Snohomish at getting wrestlers out. Archbishop Murphy, which has always had a young wrestling program, came into this season expecting a low turnout of young, inexperienced wrestlers. Unfortunately for coach Blaine Gilchrist-Smith not enough turned out and the team was disbanded.
“We tried to make a go of it but we just didn’t have enough bodies to field a team,” Gilchrist-Smith said.
Another local coach believes a big part of the reason for wrestling’s struggles comes from a lack of opportunity at the next level. Highline Community College is the only school in Washington with a wrestling program.
“Boys wrestling in high school is not declining,” said Arlington head coach Rick Iversen, who has coached wrestling for over 35 years and is a member of the National Wrestling Coaches Hall of Fame. “It’s declining in colleges, but not high schools. Washington state wrestling is so strong that if we opened up a program at the University of Washington right now and brought a good coaching staff in, there’s a good chance we’d be (ranked in the) top 10 in the first few years.”
Zabel agrees. He has a friend coaching in Pennsylvania, where there are approximately 24 colleges that offer wrestling programs.
“I think that it’s going to be something where eventually (wrestling) is going to return to the colleges in Washington,” Zabel said. “We’re starting to see wrestling as one of the most popular sports in our country, but there’s limited opportunities. It makes sense to add wrestling. To say that we’re struggling across the state for numbers really isn’t true. We really struggle at the high school level with not having colleges.”
Another wrinkle in the wrestling world is the emergence of girls wrestling. According to Zabel, Washington has the third-highest number of female wrestlers in the country.
Iversen returned to the coaching ranks at Arlington with the sole purpose of starting a girls program. When the boys’ coach resigned, he found himself leading both teams, but Iversen maintains that girls wrestling is key to the future of the sport.
“I came to Arlington 2 ½ years ago and said, ‘You need a girls program. I’ll do it for free and we’ll get it going,’” Iversen said. “A month later the boys coach quit and thrust into that.”
Once a teacher and coach at Western Washington University, Iversen opened his introductory wrestling class to girls in the 1970s. At a summer symposium he said he “was almost laughed out when I put forth the theorem for a paper that basically women were tougher than men.”
About 40 years later Iversen is still a firm proponent of girls wrestling.
“If you take two little kittens, two little puppies, it doesn’t matter their gender, they wrestle. So do kids,” Iversen said. “But at a certain age we tell the girl she needs to do girl things and a boy to do boy things. … There are still a lot of people that think girls don’t need to wrestle or shouldn’t wrestle. That’s OK. Maybe some girls shouldn’t. Like some boys shouldn’t.”
The Arlington girls team has nine girls on the squad this season, up from seven last year and three the season before that. Last year the Eagles sent a wrestler to the state tournament, which has featured girls wrestling since 2007.
Currently, there is just one tournament for all classifications — 4A through 2B — at the girls’ tournament but with its steady growth Iversen envisions that changing sooner rather than later.
“The girls aren’t divided into classifications, like 1A and 2A, and we’re going to have to separate it in the next few years because it’s growing so fast,” Iversen said. “And we might need to put them in a different facility because there’s no room. Excitement is growing that fast.”
Challenges will continue to face wrestling programs in the future, but Zabel and Iversen are confident the sport will be able to manage. A few years ago half of Zabel’s team left when Glacier Peak High School opened in Snohomish and started its own wrestling program.
Last season Snohomish placed 23rd in the 4A state tournament while Glacier Peak was 12th in the 3A standings.
“I can’t speak for other people’s program but ours is right about where it’s been since we split and became two high schools,” said Zabel. “We had about 70 at one school. I talked to Bryan (Mossburg), the Glacier Peak coach, and at Snohomish we’re at about 57 (wrestlers) and he’s at 50. Our community’s pretty heavily involved in the wrestling program.
“It just meant we were going to have to do a harder job promoting ourselves.”