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Mettle on the Mat

Mettle on the Mat

The Iowa Style Builds Our Wrestling Heroes

Story by Jim Duncan, Photography by David Peterson 

From the top-tier seats of the Wells Fargo Arena, it looks like an eight-ring circus. The action in each circle spirals kinetically to its own clock as hundreds of pairs of young men in brightly colored singlets grapple with one another.

Young girls dressed in matching school spirit cheer frantically and rhythmically, pounding the edge of each mat.

Outside the rings, wrestlers prepare for impending battles. Some meditate. Some practice yoga, calisthenics, and visualization. Some vomit. Coaches give last-minute instructions, often as mantras.

Winners rejoice, losers retire from their mats in rage or despondence, and cheer squads and coaches scurry to whichever ring will star their next wrestler, assigned on a “first mat available” basis.

In the stands at the 92nd annual Iowa High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) wrestling tournament, large congregations from every county in Iowa root for their boys.

Even those fans, from 245 high schools across the state and fillingthe arena’s 17,000 seats on championship night, dress in uniforms andrepeat mantras.

The Tri-County-Montezuma followers wear theirs on matching t-shirts:“Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight.” This is serious business.

Sport and Spectacle

Business is just as serious outside the arena. The January 2011 event poured $1.5 million into the Des Moines metro economy. Hotelier Bob Conley says it’s the most important sports event of the year, particularly for downtown’s hospitality industry.

“As far as economic impact goes, March Madness is a myth of the past. Basketball tournaments haven’t done much for us in decades. Those fans just drive in for their games and leave. Wrestling fans feel a need to be here, near the event, day and night, all week long.”


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