Fighting to get wrestling off the mat

To find the Team Impact gym at the corner of Broadview and Danforth avenues is not easy. First, you have to go through a walkway and follow a winding path behind a school until you finally reach an unmarked blue door.

Once inside you continue down a hallway and eventually start to hear the sound of bodies slamming off mats and whistles piercing the air.

Entering, you are witness to 40 or so people of all ages, genders and ethnic backgrounds wrestling at a former swimming pool, with ‘shallow end’ and ‘deep end’ still etched into the tiled walls. Incredibly, this is the pre-eminent amateur wrestling club in Toronto.

It’s somehow fitting that this gym is out of sight because that is what wrestling has become in this city.

It has been that way for almost 30 years, since a 16-year-old wrestler from Cardinal Newman High School broke his neck after awkwardly falling on his head while attempting an over-the-hip throw.

“Because of this accident, it basically killed wrestling in the Toronto Catholic league,” said Stan Tzogas, a wrestling coach at Team Impact and Pickering High School.

The death of wrestling in Catholic schools quickly spread to public schools. But a serious injury and the ensuing lawsuit weren’t the only factors that contributed to the decline of the sport.

“When there was a lot of wrestling, they were hiring. Then all of a sudden there was a hiring freeze and guys like me couldn’t come back in the city to coach,” Tzogas said.

The effects of what happened in the ’80s and ’90s are still being felt, as high schools throughout East York lack the resources to get a wrestling program off the mat.

According to Robert Galikowski, a gym teacher and the head of athletics at Monarch Park Collegiate, one of the biggest problems is the scarcity of qualified coaches.

“If somebody doesn’t step up to coach, then that sport won’t run. I guess when it comes to higher-level wrestling, you probably would want somebody who knows the sport.”

Fortunately for East York Collegiate, they have that person.

His name is Kimin Kim and while he is not a teacher at East York Collegiate, the former Brock University wrestler and York University coach has dedicated his time to establish a successful program at the school.

“The first year we started we sent two kids to OFSAA. Last year we sent three kids to OFSAA. We have good athletes, so it’s been good,” said Kim, who has also been approached by the parent council at Bennington Heights Elementary to create an after-school program.

Another factor that could help revive the sport is the rise in popularity of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

While the UFC blends a variety of disciplines from boxing to karate to Jiu-Jitsu, the elite athletes of the sport all have one thing in common: they have a strong wrestling base.

“MMA (Mixed Martial Arts)guys come here to get tough enough to win in the UFC because all of their competition is wrestling as well. So if you don’t wrestle you’re not going to win,” said Mike Quinsey, a former university wrestler and another established coach at Team Impact.

Quinsey, a silver medalist at the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA)championships during his time at Simon Fraser University, thinks the popularity of the UFC is great for young wrestlers.

“I would have loved it if MMA was around when I finished university, that would have been great,” he said.

“A number of our students have MMA aspirations, and coming out here is either going to convince them this is what they should be doing, or that there is something easier to do.”

Among the group of 40-something athletes sweating it out at Team Impact is current UFC fighter Mark Bocek, who has fought some big names, including current UFC lightweight champion  Frank Edgar and veteran Jim Miller.

The Toronto native has quickly come to realize the importance of wrestling in his sport and spends tireless hours training with Tzogas.

“In terms of MMA, it’s a really big component,” he said. “Whether you’re a striker or a grappler, it’s really important because you can use it offensively or defensively, it’s a really crucial component.”

Like most of the kids at Team Impact who look up to Bocek, he didn’t have the benefit of picking up the sport earlier, as his high school didn’t have a wrestling program.

But Tzogas is concerned that the damaged image of MMA, which was recently legalized in Ontario, has the potential of hurting, instead of helping the progression of high school wrestling.

“MMA isn’t going to help them (the school board),” he said. “As scared as they are of wrestling, they are 10 times more scared of MMA, of the lawsuits and injuries. Any time they see a tie between wrestling and MMA, it scares them even more.”

Quinsey believes there is no guarantee that wrestling can piggy-back on the popularity of the UFC and MMA, but it just might be the catalyst needed to bring it back into the high school sports spotlight.

And maybe then, instead of walking down a hidden path, the coaches at Team Impact will have kids from across the region beating down their hidden blue door to become the next great Canadian wrestler.