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Hubs' gym becomes 'daycare gone wild'

Ankle Biters Smack Down wrestling events lets youngsters let loose on the mat

Ankle Biters Smack Down wrestling events lets youngsters let loose on the mat

February 17, 2008|By Bob Parasiliti

North Hagerstown High School was the last place to be on Saturday for anyone swayed by first impressions.

Those who showed up at the home of the Hubs for a run-of-the-mill prep event were quickly jolted into an alternate reality.

Opening the gym doors was like entering The Twilight Zone. It was a picture of perpetual motion that comes from a group of athletes strengthened by an added substance. In this venue, it wasn't steroids.

It was probably sugar.

"It's organized chaos," said David Slick.

Chaos? Yes.

Organized? So much for that first impression.

The wrestling mats were rolled out as the Hagerstown Police Athletic League hosted the sixth annual Ankle Biters Smack Down, an event for wrestlers in their formative years, ages 5 and under.

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At first look, it was like a daycare gone wild - kids rolling around on the mats, chasing each other and roughhousing. Some had matches with their fathers, and none of the mothers had to yell at anyone about the possibility of breaking a lamp.

It was a cross between a kiddie playland without the ball pit and the local workout facility. And in reality, there was only one thing the Ankle

Biters tournament had in common with a daycare.

They both provide building blocks. With the Ankle Biters, those blocks help build the foundation for wrestlers and other athletes of the future.

"Most wrestling clubs start at 7 and under," said Slick, who is the PAL's wrestling director and coordinator of the event. "When you have a 5-year-old wrestle a 7-year-old, you know what's going to happen. Kids keep losing matches. We want to give them a chance to create a level playing field. One that will allow some of them to know what it's like to win a couple of matches."

Four-year-old Levi Thomas Bingaman of Greencastle, Pa., gave Slick his endorsement.

"I like winning," he said.

A total of 82 wrestlers registered for this year's event, ranging from ages 3 to 5. There were boys and girls. Their weights ranged from 30 to 100 pounds. They came from as near as Hagerstown, Williamsport, Greencastle, and Charles Town, W.Va., and as far away as Pittsburgh, Clarksburg,

W.Va., New Jersey and Williamsburg, Va., to compete.

"This event is kid friendly," said Jay Black, who brought his family from Pittsburgh for a second year to be an Ankle Biter. "There is very little pressure for the kids to win. You go to some events, it's all about winning. Here, they are able to go out, have fun and roll around the mat with kids they don't see every day. It's a good event."

An army of volunteers who man the scoring tables and do the timing and officiating make sure of that. But there is more to it.

"It's hard to retain kids in this sport," Slick said. "I have had some people come and tell me that this tournament has helped keep their kids in the sport. At 5 years old, some of the wrestlers are pretty hot. Most go out there and dance around, but some try to do the moves they learned.

Once they do the moves, it's easier to teach them."

Plus, the tournament helps with self-esteem issues.

"There are no placewinners," Slick said. "We want this to be a good experience. After they are done, everyone gets a T-shirt and a medal. All these kids watch their brothers wrestle and see them get trophies and awards. For most of them, this will be the first medal they win. We want them to have pictures to remember it all and to leave with a smile."

Somehow, it all happened despite all the chaos.

While some athletes worry about nervous energy, there was nothing nervous about this group. Kids ran back and forth across the gym, tackling each other, fighting with Nerf bats and giggling.

On this day, singlets looked like extra-large tank tops on some. Gatorade came in juice boxes. And big, tough athletes readily looked for Mommy and Daddy.

After weigh-ins, the wrestlers were broken into age groups and a four-member, round-robin bracket. Each had three matches, one against each competitor in their bracket. Some rules were modified. Parents, many manned with cameras, were allowed to sit on the side of the mat so their favorite little wrestler could always see them.

The bouts are timed and scored like regular matches. If there was a pin, officials would ask parents and coaches if they wanted to continue the bout. If a wrestler was pinned a second time, the match was terminated.

The referees stressed sportsmanship. They helped the mini-wrestlers with the rules and made sure they all shook hands before and after the bout.

In the end, both little grapplers had their hands raised in victory.

Afterwards, some of the wrestlers - like Levi Bingaman - ran and jumped in their father's arms in celebration. Others went and shook hands with their opponent's parents.

When each group finished, it went for an individual awards ceremony. Slick put the shirt on each wrestler and allowed them to choose the medal they wanted. Then they posed for group pictures for parents, first with smiles, then in toughman wrestling poses.

"This is great all the way around," said Colby Bingaman, as he held his little champion. "They all win and there is no losing. Something like this is huge because I love to see him happy."

And that, Levi Thomas was.

"I learned about being a good sport. This was 148 times big fun," he said with a smile.

That smile is the only impression that needs to be remembered.

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