Practice at the Wilson High School atrium Credit: Photo Courtesy of Archie Hogan

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Practice starts at 4 p.m., but for many members of Wilson High School’s wrestling team, it isn’t as simple as walking over to the gym. From workouts to competitions, the school’s wrestling program has to put in extra effort just to exist.

Wilson is the only D.C. public high school with a wrestling team. The program is technically a self-funded club team and is not sponsored by the city’s governing high school athletic body, the District of Columbia Interscholastic Athletic Association (DCIAA). 

Instead, Wilson head coach Archie Hogan, parents, and other supporters of the program, like the nonprofit Wrestling Coalition of D.C., work together to facilitate practice, travel, fundraising, and participation in competitions without any organizational support. 

“My students feel like they’re underdogs,” Hogan says.

But even with the obstacles, the athletes have thrived. The team boasts five D.C. state champions over the past three years and has placed two wrestlers on the Washington Post All-Met team. The DCIAA has expressed interest in sponsoring the sport at the high school level, but has not been able to due to DC Public Schools budget constraints.

Public school students from all over the city are eligible to be on Wilson’s team, provided they have the time and commitment to make it work. A good chunk of the team takes the Metro or bus to Tenleytown for practice. Hogan has had kids from every quadrant of the city, with roots in more than a dozen different countries, compete for him.

“It’s a microcosm of D.C.,” he says. “I have an ambassador’s kid on my team. I’ve got a custodian’s kid on my team … That’s something that we take pride in and kind of use as motivation.”

While the sport is physically demanding, the barriers to entry are few. Unlike baseball, football, or lacrosse, athletes can wrestle without expensive equipment or a large, specialized field. Any space that can fit a wrestling mat (regulation size is 42’ x 42’) can host an event.

But the competitive landscape is still dominated by well heeled programs at area private schools. These teams typically have wrestling rooms, or at least a dedicated space that is seasonally available, while Wilson sets up in the school’s atrium, or sometimes in the cafeteria. This haphazard arrangement can cause delays during practice.

“We have to save our mat tape for matches so the mats slide around a lot,” Hogan explains. “This means we stop practice every few minutes to push them back together.”

The mat, which they’ve had for four years, is beginning to wear, but it’s still in better condition than the one they had before, which had dry rot and did not meet size regulations. Wrestlers share use of the mat with cheerleaders and various summer camps. 

“There’s gum stuck to the bottom and food stains on the top,” Hogan says.

They need a new one, but it isn’t as urgent as the need for their own space, and funding to make sure they can travel to and compete in meets. Because there’s no public league, Wilson makes its schedule from scratch. 

“We do everything kind of on our own,” Hogan says. “It’s mostly private schools that we compete against for the D.C. state championship. And then we’ll go to tournaments around the area if we can get funding for those.”

D.C. has held a strong wrestling tradition for decades, though the city’s public schools have been all but removed from the picture. By the mid 1990s there were just two public teams, at Ballou and Wilson. By 2001, only Wilson’s remained. When that team’s coach left the school a few years later, public wrestling in D.C. ceased to exist.

Recently, there has been an uptick in interest in the sport, partially due to the popularity of Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and mixed martial arts (MMA). Many prominent MMA fighters wrestled in high school or college, and combine their experience with other fighting styles, such as jiu jitsu or judo, to make very lucrative careers for themselves.

Two 2016 Olympic wrestling gold medalists hail from Maryland, which has helped drive interest in the D.C. area. Kyle Snyder and Helen Maroulis returned from Rio as the only Americans to win gold in wrestling at the 2016 Summer Games. Snyder was nationally ranked at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Olney before starring at the National Collegiate Athletic Association and junior international levels. Maroulis placed in the state championships as a freshman and posted 99 career victories at Magruder High School in Rockville in three years before transferring to an Olympic training program.

“Seeing that it’s close by, that it’s accessible, that you don’t need to be from Pennsylvania or Iowa to see success I think has been motivational,” says Reggie Snowden, an assistant coach at Gonzaga College High School who was a D.C. state champion at Wilson. “It’s huge.”

But without a public school league, D.C. students interested in wrestling are forced to look to private schools if they want to be viewed as taking the sport seriously. Given the cost compared to other sports, and the rise in interest, there is a strong case for D.C. public schools to sponsor wrestling.

The DCIAA has been able to get middle school public programs off the ground with success. They’ve also run wrestling clinics in partnership with Wrestle Like A Girl, Beat the Streets, USA Wrestling, and American University. 

“Participation in DCIAA middle school wrestling programs has grown each year following Mayor [Muriel] Bowser’s investments in 2017,” DCIAA executive director Dwayne Foster writes in an email. “From year one to year two, wrestling participation numbers doubled. Additionally, we have added three wrestling teams since the inaugural season.”

Foster shares that the DCIAA had hoped to launch a high school league this year, but did not receive the funding from D.C. public officials in charge of the budget.

“Funding for eight high school wrestling programs was requested to add to the robust offerings already provided to DCPS high school students,” he says. “The proposal was to create wrestling programs across DCPS high schools for the inaugural year of wrestling.”

In addition to the structural hurdles they face, Wilson coaches also face a unique challenge in the fact that their players are usually far less experienced than their competitors. And even though Wilson’s club team has had success, its ability to compete at a high level is limited by resources and the culture clash in a sport dominated by private schools. 

With the stakes of high-level play, tensions can rise. 

“Some parents of these private school kids do not like watching their child lose to someone that goes to a public school,” Hogan says. Some coaches making [comfortable coaching salaries] do not like losing to a team coached by a volunteer … My team’s from all over the city … Certain programs aren’t cool with that and go out of their way to make my students feel unwelcome.”

But Wilson does get support from a few D.C. prep programs. The club team first started practicing at the Maret School before getting a mat of its own. Members of the Gonzaga coaching staff as well as Bullis School and Georgetown Prep are supportive in various ways out of a genuine interest in growing the game locally.

Brandon Wims, the teacher at Wilson who in 2012 restarted the school’s wrestling team in its current state, attributes Wilson’s success to the dedication of coaches like Hogan, the parents of players, as well as parents of former players who still stay involved. Wims handed the reins of the program over to Hogan two years ago.

“Many of these private schools have kids who have wrestled since they were young. We get kids who have no idea, they think wrestling is the thing on TV where they’re slamming chairs,” Wims says. “To have city champions where kids have not wrestled before, against these private schools, competing in big tournaments … It’s really amazing.”

Hogan, who has a law degree from William & Mary, also teaches at Wilson and coaches a middle school team along with his assistant coach, because that’s the only way they can get paid for their coaching efforts. 

He remains passionate about getting wrestling into public schools. To Hogan, it can make all the difference in a student’s life.

“I do criminal defense for juveniles,” he says. “A lot of the kids that I deal with, I don’t feel much difference between them and me. I think that I just had some opportunities that they didn’t. I had a way to get out my angst and energy… I used wrestling to give me structure that I lacked when I was a kid. And I feel like some kids can benefit from that.”

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