Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Games prove wrestling is back

Sport making a comeback as 35 athletes battled for gold

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MORDEN -- After four years of training, four years of learning how to grab on and hold, MicKayla Chapman-Cochrane left the Manitoba Games wearing gold.

Wrestling is emerging from some lean years in Manitoba, and the 13-year-old Peguis First Nation wrestler was one of just two girls in her 54-kilogram weight class on the mat at Morden Collegiate Institute on Friday.

Still, she arrived focused, won all three of her matches against Winnipeg's Jessica Johnson, and sealed first place. "It's very exciting," Chapman-Cochrane said after winning their second bout. "Earlier in the day, I was really nervous. I was looking in the mirror, thinking, what if I lose the second match? But I looked up at the podium, and said that's where I want to be, in first place."

Her victory, and the performance of all 35 young wrestlers who competed on the penultimate day of the Games on Friday, whisper a promise that freestyle wrestling in Manitoba is back on track. After an organizational collapse in the mid-2000s, wrestling boosters had to rebuild almost from scratch. They had to form a new provincial sport organization, work toward getting national recognition, even acquire new wrestling mats.

That has taken work, enormous amounts of work, and the results are still pending. Manitoba sent a wrestling delegation to the Canada Games last year, which was exciting, and Friday marked the sport's debut at the Manitoba Games.

"There's been some real bright spots," said Sally McNabb, of the Manitoba Amateur Wrestling Association. "There has been a lot of positive, but we still have a lot of building to do. We need to get back into schools and communities that we lost."

Those communities, it seems, could come from all over, as much of wrestling's apparent resurgence in Manitoba draws from well outside Winnipeg's borders. Of the 35 kids who competed at the Manitoba Games this week, some came from Cross Lake and The Pas, and a whopping 10 came out of the Peguis First Nation program where Chapman-Cochrane trains, including half of the 12 girls in the field.

That program is only four years old, a labour of love and family run out of Peguis Central School. This year, they are training about 26 kids, and their wrestlers are doing well: Chapman-Cochrane's older sister Savannah wrestled for Manitoba at the Canada Games last year. All the kids who come out are role models, coach Bernie McCorrister said, and wrestling helps them stay that way: if they want to wrestle, they have to keep up good grades.

Now, the Peguis wrestling club is hoping to hold their first tournament next year and invite wrestlers from Selkirk maybe, from Fisher River, from other First Nations. "It builds their spirit," McCorrister said. "It makes them more confident in themselves. You see the kids, they come into the sport all shy. By the time the season's over, they're the loudest kid in the crowd. They're not afraid to do anything."

This is what the Manitoba Games are supposed to be about, right, shining a light on 1,100 young athletes from 10 different sports, and on communities too. The host communities, for instance, of Winkler, Morden and the R.M. of Stanley. They teamed up three years ago to bid for these Games, and on Friday it was hard for organizers to believe the week was finally coming to a close.

"It's going to be a really emotional day for a lot of us," said Meg Diaz, the Games co-chair, as she looked ahead to the closing ceremonies today.

Well, at least they'll finally get some sleep. No event of this size ever comes off perfectly, but for the most part the little snafus ironed out.

All that aside, the host communities will remember these were the Games where more than 1,000 volunteers helped out, even though organizers originally hoped for 800. They will remember how area businesses chipped in with hundreds of thousands of dollars to get the Games off the ground. They will remember the beaming young athletes rushing around between Morden and Winklers, and now back into the rest of the province beyond.

"It's a real testament to the way I knew the community worked," Diaz said. "Leading up to it, you have all of these stresses, wondering how things are going to work out. The end result is everybody worked so well together... watching these kids come, and be genuinely happy, it's just really nice.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 8, 2014 C7

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