WILLIAMSPORT — Legends move people in different ways.
In the grand scheme, Dan Gable won’t be confused with Albert Einstein, George Washington or Mark Twain, but the words of the former Olympic wrestling champion and college coach have inspired many.
“Dan Gable said, ‘Once you’ve wrestled, everything else in life is easy,’” said Tim Almany, a board member and coach for the Williamsport Wrestling Club. “This is one of the toughest things a kid will ever do. We try to express values to the kids in addition to teaching them wrestling.”
Wrestling and life skills are the two underlying themes the club has hung its headgear on since it started in 1973. And now, during its 40th anniversary, the club celebrates by taking its mission to an even higher level by opening its own practice facility.
But the goals will always remain the same.
“At the end of the day, it all goes farther than just wrestling,” said Mike Zimmerman, the club’s vice president. “Our goal is to use wrestling as a vehicle to positively impact the lives of the children by instilling values, such as self-esteem, respect, work ethic, dedication and good sportsmanship. We’re not just trying to make great wrestlers, but to teach the things to make them great people.”
Tough wrestling and an easier life seem like the oil and vinegar mix in sport. The challenge, focus and dedication to go out and compete on a mat as an individual provides qualities that can be carried over to everyday life.
“More enduringly than any other sport, wrestling teaches self-control and pride. Some have wrestled without great skill — none have wrestled without pride.” — Gable
In Williamsport, wrestling is a brotherhood. While wrestling club graduates hail from across the area and go to other schools, many end up on the mats for the Wildcats.
Boonsboro coach Mike McGill started at the club before becoming one of Williamsport’s all-time greats. So did four-time county champion Zach Shoemaker. Nick Miller took his experiences to become a West Virginia state champion at Hedgesville.
Current Williamsport coach Mike Rechtorovic and some of the Wildcats have donated their time to give the sport’s new breed pointers.
There are many more, but all remain in wrestling’s fraternity forever for an array of reasons.
“Success breeds success,” Almany said. “A lot of kids who leave here go on to be successes. We hope to keep that going because our bantams are our largest group right now.”
The club provides the groundwork for youth wrestlers to begin that journey. The Williamsport Wrestling Club has 80 to 100 children between the ages of 4 and 14 registered to compete and there are practices most every night. They leave the club after eighth grade and head to high school programs.
They join for many reasons — family tradition, competition, physical fitness and even a parent’s hope to break bad habits and channel aggressiveness — but many learn something about themselves along the way.
“I just like to wrestle,” said Justin Beckley, a 13-year-old eighth grader at Springfield Middle School. “It’s one of my favorite sports and it helps keep me in shape. I like physical sports. I have learned a lot of stuff, like self-discipline, listening and how to focus.”
“If you are afraid to fail, you will never succeed.” — Gable
The faces of the wrestling brotherhood have changed over the years. Right now, those providing the introductions include people like Almany, Zimmerman and club president Earl Crawford. Each has their reason for being with the club. They are bricks in the foundation the club stands on.
Almany calls himself a “transplant from Montgomery County,” who wrestled and wanted to get his boys involved. “I coach to give back to the sport.”
Zimmerman has been with the club for six years and joined through friendship with Crawford and some need. “I knew Earl and his brother,” he said. “When my son was 4, he didn’t go to daycare and he was bouncing off the walls. I needed to get him some structure.”
Crawford, meanwhile, has been part of the club for 38 of its 40 years. He got involved sort of accidently, but has stayed to make sure it continues.
“I was wrestling in high school and my dad was working evenings,” Crawford said. “I would come to the club practices for my ride home and started working with my nephew. They got me helping and got me involved and I liked it.”
The Crawford Family’s club tradition continues today as Earl’s nephew, Cody Crawford, is a member.
“I like wrestling because I’m athletic and like to compete,” said Cody, an 11-year-old sixth grader at E. Russell Hicks. “It is part of my family. It has taught me good moves, focus and not to lose my temper. I have a lot of friends and I have learned to cheer for them because they are on my team.”
“We’ve got to work. We can’t live on reputations at all.” — Gable
The work at the club continues even though the reputation was built four decades ago.
Former Williamsport wrestling coach Al Witt, along with Clyde Downs, Jerry Messenger and Bob Wantz, were the founding fathers of Washington County wrestling. In the 1970s, Witt decided there was a need for youth wrestling and started the club with the help of Mike Dreisbach and Clay Hayes.
The club quickly found success. It has not only developed state champions and junior All-Americans, but it has helped develop coaches.
The club teaches Folk style/scholastic wrestling, which are used at the high school and college levels. The club competes in the Mason Dixon wrestling league, which is comprised of 20 clubs in the four-state area.
Dreisbach and Hayes were the club’s first presidents. Ten men have filled the office since, including Earl Crawford for the last decade.
“We are looking to take the program and go farther,” Crawford said.
“Every time I walked out of the gym, I was a little better than when I walked in.” - Gable
The Williamsport Wrestling Club started a new era on Feb. 14 when it celebrated the 40th anniversary by giving itself a valentine - the grand opening of its own practice facility.
The glorified garage sits off Spielman Road, featuring wall-to-wall mats for practice. It feels like a penthouse suite because it gives the club a home of its own.
“The biggest thing we have done … We are standing in it,” Almany said. “The best present for our anniversary is to get our own facility. This is monumental. We call this the “Wildcat Den.’ It takes us to the next level.”
Until now, the club has had a nomadic existence. It was forced to rely on the generosity of two local schools to get practice time.
“We would like to thank Williamsport and Saint James School,” Zimmerman said. “We have had a great relationship over the years with both schools and they are a big part of our success. From holding our events and practices at their facilities to directly working with those wrestling programs and coaches, a lot of what we do wouldn’t be possible without their generous support.”
The wrestling room has become a reality through the efforts of a donor who prefers to remain anonymous along with a number of businesses who donated time to set it up.
The club is looking for sponsors to help offset the costs of maintaining the facility. The club holds two tournaments a year, provides entry fees for tournaments and provides a scholarship to help its brotherhood once it goes to college among other things.
“It’s like a dream come true for them to come here,” Crawford said. “We got this building so we can offer year-round practices and to bring in clinics to help them improve.”
The mat room will also help the club be more relevant in a youth wrestling world Zimmerman calls “the Wild West.” Wrestlers aren’t held by boundaries and can move at will. Williamsport has lost wrestlers to other clubs for a number of reasons, including year-round instruction.
“We are trying to prepare them for the next level,” Zimmerman said. “You can see the possibilities. This (facility) is a big step to keep the kids here. You have some really competitive kids here and we found ourselves in need to do this. We want to make this a one-stop shop for wrestling.”
Now, the Williamsport Wrestling Club is ready to start its fifth decade of building champions and shaping a generation — while possibly creating another legend along the way.