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This article was published 9/8/2017 (766 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
They’ve been knocked to the mat, thanks to a series of political and financial decisions that have put the future of their sport very much in question in this province.
But the athletes and coaches representing Manitoba wrestling in the Canada Summer Games are trying to pick themselves up while embracing the role of scrappy underdogs.
"Is it right? No. Just because of politics, no, sorry, you’re not going to get that. It’s heartbreaking. These kids have no one to look up to now. How do they grow it?" men’s coach Dave Elder told the Free Press on Wednesday. He was speaking about the recent decision by the University of Winnipeg to slash its wrestling program, just as the University of Manitoba had previously done.
"They could have taken money from somewhere else if you ask me. I just think it’s wrong," Elder said.
He sounded off after watching his 10-member squad get off to a tough start in the team competition at the Axworthy Health and RecPlex, losing by a combined score of 33-15 to Alberta in the morning, 33-16 to Quebec in the afternoon and 41-9 to Ontario in the evening.
Winnipegger Kyle Steeves, 17, won both his individual contests in the first two team events Wednesday. The St. Paul’s student wants to stick with wrestling when he graduates next spring and knows he will have to look outside the province for his post-secondary options.
"It’s very disappointing," he said.
However, Steeves is savouring the opportunity to compete in his hometown and could be a medal threat once the team competition ends and the individual wrestling events are held Friday in 11 different weight categories.
Brothers Hunter and Carson Lee from Flin Flon are also expected to join Steeves as legitimate individual medal threats, according to their coach.
There was another bright spot on the men’s team Wednesday. Khaled Aldrar, a 17-year-old Syrian refugee who arrived in the province last winter, also won both his matches in the first two team events.
"His style is coming out. He’s such a nice kid and a good wrestler. I think on the mat he doesn’t want to be aggressive. He’s new here, I can understand him not wanting to make enemies," Elder said.
The Manitoba women’s team won their opening match Wednesday morning 29-18 over Newfoundland and Labrador, then were drubbed 41-5 by Saskatchewan in the afternoon and 46-4 by Alberta in the evening. Jessica Rabet, 17, scored the only points for her team in the afternoon match by pinning her opponent.
Rabet is also set to leave the province, beginning her studies this fall at the University of Regina, where she will also be part of their wrestling program. In fact, the Team Saskatchewan coach who watched Rabet defeat his athlete on Wednesday likely had mixed emotions, as he will soon be guiding Rabet at the school.
"I’m excited to learn so many new things, be part of a bigger program," said Rabet, who recently graduated from Grant Park High School. It’s one of the few high schools in the city that still has a dedicated wrestling program. "But for a lot of kids here (in Manitoba) who might want to keep going here, well now they can’t."
Rabet said she often has to train against men because there aren’t enough women competing in the sport locally. That might explain why Team Manitoba only has eight female wrestlers at the Summer Games, rather than the maximum of 11 they could carry.
Manitoba women’s coach Kris Stasiak said it’s a shame what wrestling has become in this province, where he has coached for more than two decades.
"Manitoba was at one point one of the stronger provinces in Canada. But we’ve lost a lot of school programs," he said.
Stasiak blamed a number of factors, including the demise of the university wrestling programs and not enough former athletes "stepping up" to help coach what is a very specialized sport.
Stasiak said there is work now underway to revive wrestling at the "grassroots" level but admits not having programs at the U of M and U of W makes it an uphill climb.
"That was quite a blow to the wrestling community," he said.
The women’s team finishes off pool competition against Nova Scotia and Nunavut today. The men wrap up against Nova Scotia today. Teams must finish first or second in their pool to have any shot at a medal. The top team in each of the two pools in both men’s and women’s competition will square off tonight for gold and silver, while the second-place teams will battle for bronze.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
Updated on Thursday, August 10, 2017 at 8:54 PM CDT: corrects hometown of Lee brothers