Trip to state wrestling tourney a gift that keeps giving – Beside the Point

Making the trip to Des Moines for the annual state wrestling meet is typically an up and down of epic proportions.

As media, we get tucked into a corner room on the floor level of Wells-Fargo, shoulder-to-shoulder with bottled water and a couple large screen tvs showing all eight matches. We listen to the announcements of matches to mats, and then we get up and down throughout the day to observe and photograph the wrestlers we cover.

The other side of this is the emotion that’s involved with this high-adrenaline, individual, one-on-one battles. These kids have to win four matches to be the best in the state. That doesn’t seem like much at first blush, but as Head Coach Ryan Smith said walking back to the van after Saturday’s matches – there’s very little room for error in these matches. The kids that lose somewhere along the line have to wrestle even more just to get on the podium. Fort Madison didn’t get any kids on the podium this year.

This is the fifth year I’ve covered the state tournament. I missed two years ago because my daughter died that week. I messaged Smith that year and told him I couldn’t find anyone to cover the event for his kids. He messaged back and said I was just where I was supposed to be. Then he bear-hugged me 10 days later as he and about 20 other athletes and coaches came to her funeral to say good-bye.

Kelsey was a huge fan of Coach Smith and Derek Doherty. In a school with a student population that made her regularly feel like an outcast, these two welcomed her and made her high school bearable, and for that they are both considered treasures to Lee and I.

Derek messaged me last week and said he was sitting at a desk and Kelsey popped into his head – it brought a smile to his face. The message couldn’t have come at a better time and I think was ushered in by angels because about 30 minutes before then I left this poor woman on the phone at the Iowa Medical Board wishing she had another job.

The board reported to me that they had denied any disciplinary action against the pulmonary hypertension specialist who sent Kelsey home with an improving diagnosis, against the recommendation – just six hours earlier – of the ER staff and cardiology team at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, that Kelsey be admitted as her PH was worsening. That was three weeks before she died.

I left this woman angry and frustrated, not nearly as much as I was, and then I pitched a fit and threw some things around the room, stomped and screamed a little bit. Then I called the director of the IMB and did the same thing to him.

But here’s the thing with that. It accomplished nothing. But I had no choice. It just came out.

I witness similar, albeit different, exhaustive passion from wrestlers at Wells Fargo each year. It never fails that someone who loses one of these gut checks, will go down the halls screaming and yelling and throwing chairs, slamming things, yelling – but it’s understood. They put everything into that weekend, some upwards of a dozen years.

But as I put in a post after Fort Madison’s Ike Thacher and Daniel Sokolik were both eliminated on Thursday, these Bloodhounds are a little different. I typically give them a few minutes after their final matches of the day before I chase them down for an interview.

These two boys were the epitome of what Fort Madison’s athletic programs have become. They were poised and mature in their comments. They sat face-to-face with me and talked about what they didn’t do right and what the future holds for them. If I you don’t see this happening in Fort Madison, you’re just not looking hard enough.

Senior Jakob McGowan won his first match over the 6th-ranked wrestler in the state Thursday, and then moved to the quarterfinals on Friday where he lost both matches and was eliminated before getting to the podium.

After searching for McGowan and Smith after the match, I tracked them down outside on the way to the van as they headed back to their hotel. There I found a group of coaches and wrestlers who were accepting of the results and moving on.

McGowan had a smile on his face as he walked back hooded up to the van working his cellphone. There’s little doubt he left everything on the mat and his body language showed his confidence in that. All three of the boys did.

There were no fits. There were no tears evident. This was a group of boys and coaches who once again prepared for the best in the state and, even though they don’t get a medal around their neck, they are clearly proud of their efforts.

If the social media traffic following our posts on the weekend’s events is any indication, this community is once again proud of their efforts as well.

It’s a culture of accomplishment that runs deeper than any other in FMHS history. The names hang on the wall in the wrestling room. Ike Thacher said that is his motivation – to join those names on the wall. And as just a sophomore who blamed himself for not being mentally prepared, I’d take the odds today, he returns in 12 months.

Daniel Sokolik said he was going to come back as a heavyweight. He has to put on about 25 pounds and he said he didn’t want to “come back fat” so he would work hard to put the weight on the right way. And if you don’t know Sokolik, get to know him. He’s one of the genuinely happiest kids on the earth. A kid who values, and getting every drop out of life, is someone always on my radar.

These boys, moments away from having their season ended, were already in a state of mind of preparation, and not blame or anger.

Looking back at my behavior with the Iowa Medical Board, these boys taught me a little something about myself. I still believe there is something wrong with a board so sanitary in their investigation that all my family gets after close to a year of investigation is a simple statement that there will be no discipline.

It’s doctors protecting doctors, and attorneys who feel that the slide rule determining risk and reward doesn’t measure up for my daughter. Of course it’s a tough battle, but nothing compared to what she faced.

It’s a rough weekend for sure and my impatience with God is only outweighed by the heartbreak I feel for my wife. There’s something about watching these boys deal with adversity, obviously not even close to being on the same level, but still – it makes me smile a little.

As long as we produce Pen City Current we’ll make the trip, even if we leave a day early because a winter squall is on the way. These kids work hard, balance, learn, and grow. They deserve that coverage.

I thank them for providing a unique and needed distraction during a tough time. That’s a gift that will keep on giving… but that’s Beside the Point.

Chuck Vandenberg is the editor and co-owner of Pen City Current, and can be reached at

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: