Black and white…

by Allison Younge

Black and white portraits of past wrestling All-Americans lined the walls of the hallway leading to the secluded Gophers wrestling office at the Bierman Field Athletic Building. My stomach turned as I walked through the door.
November 21 marked the day of my first interview with Gophers wrestling coach J Robinson — a day I will never forget. As if being a female freelance sports reporter on my first official assignment wasn’t nerve-wracking enough, I was forced to admit complete wrestling ignorance to a hard-nosed, 13-year veteran wrestling coach.
Terms like “takedown,” “nearfall” and “escape” meant about as much to me as some of the military lingo Robinson used in his wrestling analogies. The advice that I received from him that day was clear: If you give the sport a chance, get to know these guys and take an interest in what they do, it’ll make the season a lot easier for you.
I knew the coach was skeptical, and it offered me a challenge. From that moment on, I worked to prove myself to Robinson, the team and Minnesota wrestling fans who read my stories.
Watching the team practice in the humid confines of the wrestling room in the basement of the Bierman building gave me an idea of the amount of effort the coach expected — all-out.
On Jan. 4, after the Gophers 19-16 loss to Iowa State, it was even more apparent. This match marked my first after-match interview with a frustrated, disappointed J Robinson.
“We didn’t do anything,” Robinson said. “We didn’t wrestle, we just stood around, and we didn’t do anything.”
The extreme came in the Gophers’ Feb. 9 bout against Big Ten rival Penn State. The match marked some of the most exciting wrestling that I’ve ever seen. The Gophers even impressed their competition.
“Minnesota has a great team with a lot of heart. They come out ready to win,” Penn State’s NCAA champion Kerry McCoy said. “They’re going to do well this year.”
The Gophers were on the upswing and the energy continued, producing a second place finish at the Big Ten championships and a third-place finish at the NCAA tournament. A Big Ten champion was crowned and five wrestlers earned All-America honors at the NCAAs.
Throughout the season I had a chance to get to know Spiderman (Josh Holiday), the Beast (Tim Hartung), and The Strongest Man In The World (Pat Connors), as well as many other Minnesota wrestlers.
Last summer, I remember hearing about some guy from Minnesota who won a medal at the Olympics. Little did I know I’d be talking to Brandon Paulson (118-pounder for the Gophers and 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics wrestling silver medalist) less than four months later.
Through various feature interviews, I learned these athletes are very different from one another, but they are close-knit and train and compete under a common belief system. At least one of three points was included in almost every conversation. Robinson explained it like this:
“Our goal is to be aggressive and dominating, develop a unique Minnesota style and have fun,” he said.
After following this Gophers team for one full season, I’ve learned a little about wrestling and a lot about life. I’ve witnessed how much work it sometimes takes to accomplish specific goals. Even though Iowa swept this year’s NCAA tournament, winning individual and team title honors, Minnesota proved themselves among the best.
I owe a lot to Robinson, assistant coaches Marty Morgan, Joe Russell and the rest of the Gophers. They encouraged me and helped me sound like I knew what I was talking about, even when I didn’t. They gave me the chance to look into their world to help me better understand it.
The Gophers wrestling office is a different place to me now than it was initially. I no longer dread my weekly visit there, but enjoy hearing the current news on the team. I look forward to covering the Gophers next season when they return to the mat in pursuit of a national title.
Not too long ago, I was talking with Robinson and he said some things that stuck in my mind. Everyone is a salesman, whether you realize it or not. Everyone sells something. This year, this coach and this team all sold me on the grueling, dramatic, exciting sport of wrestling — and there’s no going back.