An Olympian Visits Trenton

“What if…this program grew to its potential? What if these young girls and boys get the same great coaching, teaching, role models, and mentorship that I was blessed to have?  What if Trenton Youth Wrestling produced an Olympian?  Why not?”
Kyle Snyder, Rio Olympics Gold Medalist

Olympic gold medalist Kyle Snyder talks with Trenton-area youth about what it means to be a champion. (Photo: Penny Ray, The Trentonian)

Last fall I had the honor and great pleasure of spending a day with the youngest American wrestler ever to win an Olympic gold medal, Kyle Snyder. Kyle, who captured the gold in Rio de Janeiro, gave an inspirational talk to young wrestlers last fall at the Titans in Trenton wrestling festival in Trenton, NJ, a tough, blue-collar town that has few wrestling programs. Read more about his visit here.

The events of that day were not only enjoyable; they also reinforced my plans for the next phase of my life.

Titans in Trenton was sponsored by the Wrestlers in Business Network of Princeton, Beat the Streets Philly, Capital City My Brother’s Keeper, and the City of Trenton. The clinic’s dual goal: to raise awareness for the Trenton Youth Wrestling program and to encourage kids to become scholar-athletes and good citizens who affect positive change.

When asked by an aspiring youth wrestler what it means to be a champion, Kyle Snyder said, “I know a lot of people who haven’t achieved the accolades that others have, but in my eyes they’re still extremely successful because of the way they carry themselves and the way they think about their sport or whatever else they’re doing. Champions simply become the best people they can possibly be. Wrestling has taught me to be consistent in all aspects of my life, to treat people nicely, to work hard and to value positive things. If you surround yourself with people who inspire you to do great things, believe in yourself and work toward a goal, you can get it done.”

At the event, I saw many wrestlers I coached years ago at the Princeton Amateur Wrestling Society (PAWS) which has now grown into a bigger, more comprehensive wrestling Regional Training Center called Princeton Wrestling Club (PWC.) PWC resides on the Princeton University campus and is now the home for many great wrestlers including some hopefuls for the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020.  It was great to see so many familiar faces from our old club who are now thriving in high school and college. I am proud to see how great they’re doing. For example, Gordon Wolf is wrestling at Lehigh University; Owen Jones is headed to NYU; and Will Kuenne is off to Washington and Lee.

Canaan Bethea was also there. Canaan, who helped found Trenton Youth Wrestling, is from Trenton and he went on to the University of Pennsylvania. About 15 years ago, he and his family walked through the door at PAWS and started working out with us. I remember thinking how lucky we were to have great wrestlers from Trenton come into our wrestling room at Princeton. I also thought to myself: someday we’ll bring this program to Trenton.

As I listened to Kyle Snyder talk to the kids at the Titans of Trenton event, I had an inspiration. If we brought youth wrestling to the elementary and middle schools in the city, Trenton could become a hotbed for wrestling in the future. All the ingredients for success are there—what I call the “four Ps”:  the right plan, place, people and partnerships.

We’ve created a plan using the knowledge and experience I acquired over 15 years of teaching wrestling to the young athletes of PAWS. The place is Trenton, a city I deeply respect for its history and one that I work in as a physician. Trenton can also provide people who know wrestling and are dedicated and passionate about their community.

Lastly, we developed productive partnerships with: Wrestlers in Business,
an organization dedicated to growing wrestling at a grassroots level and cultivating careers post-wrestling.  This is bolstered by an affiliation with Beat the Streets Philly a group that provides tutoring and mentorship for young wrestlers; and the Betheas, a long-standing family of talent and character in Trenton who can provide a direct connection with local organizations and people. The Betheas are living proof that wrestling and scholarship can make one’s dreams come true.  It’s a perfect fit and a perfect opportunity for positive change to happen.

As I kept thinking about my strategy for achieving this, I realized the impetus must come from the Princeton community, a place that I call “the Athens of the 21st century.” Princeton has opportunity, education, wealth, and an amazing university. Just 12 miles down the road is Trenton with economic and societal challenges—what would happen if kids in Trenton had the same opportunities as those in Princeton?

As Kyle Snyder said: “What if…this program grew to its potential? What if these young girls and boys get the same great coaching, teaching, role models, and mentorship that I was blessed to have?  What if Trenton Youth Wrestling produced an Olympian?  Why not?”

My hope is that the entire PWC Nation, our wrestling community, takes the lead in this initiative and that it snowballs into broader national support. I believe we’ve all got more to give! We’ve brought the Princeton Youth program to the place we want it to be, now we need to keep it going in Princeton while moving the momentum down the road and make the same happen in Trenton. My goal is to tap into all available resources in Princeton and I need your help and support. For example, we’re going to invite great wrestlers—including those training for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020—to help us teach wrestling to kids in Trenton.

It’s important to remember that this program isn’t just about learning wrestling—there’s much more to it than that. The end result will be that the discipline and work ethic from this great sport are instilled in the minds of young people in Trenton. I’ve often said that my vocation, neurosurgery, is surgery on the brain and my avocation, coaching wrestling, is surgery on the mind.  Coaching youth wrestling to me is like implanting an operating system into young people’s minds about pursuing excellence through hard work and striving for constant improvement.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Research shows that wrestlers who dedicate themselves to the sport reap these benefits:

Self-Confidence
When you wrestle, you can’t rely on anyone but yourself. You have to be accountable for your own successes and failures. For this reason, wrestlers must be confident. Without a positive attitude, there will be no success.

Discipline
Waking up before the sun rises for early morning runs, sacrificing a social life in order to train and compete—these are only a few of a wrestler’s duties. Sometimes, you have to do things that aren’t that “fun” to reach your goals.

Mental Toughness
Wrestlers learn to be both physically and mentally tough. It takes a tremendous amount of toughness to pick yourself up off the mat when you’re losing. You’ll never be able to name a successful wrestler with a weak mind because there isn’t one.

Sportsmanship
People who have never wrestled have a hard time understanding how mentally and physically taxing it is on competitors. Because of this, wrestlers develop more than just a sense of respect for each other—they develop an admiration.1

The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance puts it this way: “Due to its physical and tactical nature that pushes emotional levels, wrestling participation offers unique moral-development experiences such as maturity of self-concept, decision making, self-control and sportsmanship. More specifically, through the concept of fair play, students can learn to obey rules and develop personal and social responsibility for their behavior. Through the moral-development experiences that wrestling participation affords, the sport offers situations that are suitable for promoting character development.”2
Kyle Snyder is a perfect example of the character development that wrestling provides. I was thrilled that he came to Trenton and spoke to those wide-eyed young kids who are thinking about taking up the sport. He showed them his gold medal and taught them about making good choices and how the best leaders lead by example, by loving people and by sacrificing.

It has become clear to me that my purpose in life is more than just being a doctor, it’s also being an ambassador for wrestling, and bringing wrestling to young people who can benefit from it now and in the future. You see, wrestling, to me, is more than a sport.  It is a way of life.  I am lucky to have a career that saves lives every day in medicine, but I think we can save even more by growing wrestling in Trenton and in places like Trenton.

How Can You Help?

Support/Sponsor/Attend the NWCA All Star Classic
and/or
Donate to Beat the Streets Philly-Trenton Youth Wrestling

Sources:

1.    The Benefits of Wrestling: Why You Should Wrestle. iSport. 2016 http://wrestling.isport.com/wrestling-guides/the-benefits-of-wrestling-why-you-should-wrestle
2.    Destani F, Hannon J, Podlog L, Brusseau T. Promoting Character Development Through Teaching Wrestling in Physical Education. The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance. 2014. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/271967008