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School wrestling program helping build character

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"Wipe it off. Wipe it off."


This is the not the cry of the kid from the movie Stand by Me telling his buddies to pull the leeches of his body. Nor is it a teacher telling a student about the danger of maintaining that sardonic grin.


This is a wrestling battle cry, one that a coach would scream to his pupil on the mat to quickly break a hold from an opponent that could result in an immediate pin or a loss of key point.


Jeff Herkimer, the wrestling coach of the Windsor Park Collegiate wrestling team for the past five years, has often pounded out  this line from his wrestling mat corner. He takes a special interest in finding those kids in the school who need a boost of confidence by enrolling them in his wrestling program.


Windsor Park had a wrestling team way back in the 1960s and ‘70s but hasn’t had one for years. When Herkimer earned a full-time teaching position at the school in 2006, he decided to bring back one of WPC’s venerable sports.


His own background is in jiu jitsu and judo. In fact, Herkimer has been the senior men’s blue belt world champion on two occasions, mostly recently in 2010, when he earned the title in Brazil.


The students in Herkimer’s program do not generally participate in other school extracurricular activities, so for them, the wrestling team is a way to show off some school spirit.
But they gain so much more than school spirit.


Herk, as he is known to his students and athletes, believes that  "Wrestling is a way to test yourself after solid practice, to build character that extends far beyond the wrestling mat into every aspect of your life."


He finds and accepts individuals into the program who are not mainstream kids, those who go to school but don’t feel engaged and lack a sense of belonging. And in a culture where more and more kids are becoming unengaged with their high schools, Herk finds a place for them to belong.


He accepts kids from the school’s special needs program, those with troubled home lives and students battling addiction problems.  If you’ve got a pulse and you want to wrestle, he’ll take you on.


One of his prize students at Windsor Park, Dakota Berard-Froese, credits wrestling with keeping him focused on school and building disciplined work habits.


"We practice four times a week, and Herk pushes us beyond what we think we’re capable of achieving in practice and competition," Berard-Froese says. "He’s a huge role model in my life."


Berard-Froese recently won gold at a wrestling tournament at Windsor Park Collegiate in early March and a silver medal in the provincial tourney. He is participating in the nationals this month where he will test his mettle against the best in Canada. He intends to go to university to purse education in kinesiology and, of course, to wrestle.


These athletes, out of the mainstream of school activities, won’t have to "wipe it off" much longer.  They’re learning to break the hold that keeps them from developing their potential and talents.


They’re very lucky to have Herk in their corner.


Herkimer also coaches wrestling at the University of Winnipeg and is getting married this summer.


Adriano Magnifico is a community correspondent for St. Boniface. You can contact him at amagnif@mymts.net.

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