High fives and cheers rang out at Bunn High School last month as young wrestlers ranging in size from little squirts to Mack trucks tested their mettle in hand-to-hand combat.
Despite size and age differences, all of the wrestlers competing that day had two things in common: they were brand new to the sport, and they were tough as steel.
More festival than championship, the Triangle Wrestling Union’s Novice Championship on Feb. 26 was a hive of activity. Wrestling mats covered nearly every inch of the high school gym floor, as five pairs of wrestlers competed simultaneously, grappling, twisting and rolling around during three-minute mini-matches.
Luke Kunath, 8, and Cole Gamel, 9, battled through three rounds and a double overtime until Cole emerged the winner, an official holding his small arm high in the air. He had scored the winning point in a sudden-victory round.
The boys, who are teammates in the Capital City Wrestling Club, are each other’s best friend and biggest rival.
They attend different elementary schools in North Raleigh – Cole is a student at Brassfield and Luke goes to Baileywick – but they met through wrestling and formed a fast, tight bond.
“They wrestle in the same weight class,” said Luke’s dad, Tom Kumath. “And when they compete together, their matches always go into overtime.”
The first-year wrestlers are both small for their age and weigh in at the under-55 pounds class.
“I love wrestling. It is fun and good exercise,” Cole said.
Cole also enjoys his school’s First in Fitness exercise program. “I can do 15 pullups and like to do the mile runs,” he said.
Luke plays soccer and practices taekwondo when he is not on the mats but says wrestling is his favorite sport.
That’s music to his dad’s ears. Tom Kunath wrestled in high school, college and the Army. He practices jiujitsu and has taken up amateur boxing.
Luke admitted he gets the jitters when he faces off against Cole on the mats.
“I want to beat him, but I don’t want to hurt him,” he said.
The two boys are so evenly matched that they have split victories in their young wrestling careers.
The Triangle Wrestling Union holds novice tournaments for wrestlers younger than 14 with just one or two years of experience in the sport. The union, made up of a dozen clubs in the Triangle, aims to foster wrestling on all levels.
“The novice tournament was a low-pressure event where these kids can succeed and try out moves they have learned with other wrestlers of the same ability,” said Joe Cesari, director of the Capital City Wrestling Club of Raleigh.
Cesari founded the Capital City Wrestling Club in 2001. This April, during the club’s introductory session, he hopes to hit his goal of 100 wrestlers. Currently, 85 kids participate in the club.
“Wrestling is a great sport for kids,” he said.
“It teaches discipline, builds character and fosters leadership. These novice events help beginning wrestlers build confidence, which is very important.”
The Capital City Wrestling Club had 25 athletes at the novice event.
Ed Mutio directs the Wake Forest Daredevils wrestling team. In place since 2004, the team is growing, with 60 wrestlers of all ages and abilities on the roster. Fifteen novice wrestlers from his Daredevils team competed in Bunn.
“When wrestlers get to the AAU level, they go up against others with a lot of experience, and this environment is really challenging for the novices, which sometimes defeats their attitudes,” Mutio said.
“Having the first- and second-year wrestlers compete against each other gives them good mat experience and allows them to wrestle kids with comparable skills.”
Mutio said wrestling is not for all kids, but it gives athletes a good character and fitness base to move into other sports.
“This sport is for kids who like physical contact and are aggressive,” he said. “It builds attitude and teaches self-reliance and teaches kids lessons about life.”
Mutio and Cesari are proud of their wrestlers’ successes at the next level.
“We are an avenue for beginning wrestlers to compete and be prepared for high school, and they are competitive at the conference, regional and state levels,” Mutio said.
Stephen Gamel, Cole’s dad, is a believer.
“Cole and Luke went to the NCWAY (N.C. Wrestling Association for Youth) state championships as novices and did well,” Stephen Gamel said. “That is a statement to their abilities and to the Capital City Wrestling Club for preparing them.”
At the Bunn event, where no scores were kept, both Cole and Luke felt like winners.
But wrestling season is coming to a close, and the boys are thinking about what they will do in the off-season.
“I’ll be bored,” Luke said.
His dad reminded him that he starts soccer soon.
Luke’s face opened up into a big smile, and he nodded.
He’s ready to take his game outside.
The fastest girl, Sophia Ebihara, 13, of Raleigh, set a new course record for women, finishing in 19:33.
Aaron Bowman, 36, of Greensboro finished the race in second place in 16:56, and Ryan Laytham, 30, of Raleigh finished third in 17:20, edging out fourth-place finisher, Alex Pearce, 33, of Raleigh by two seconds.
Among the female competitors, Heather Waterman, 22, of Raleigh finished second in 19:56 and Caroline Mitchell, 17, of Cary was third, in 20:06.
The youngest racer was Connor Van Heugten, 6, of Cary, who finished in 34:46, and the oldest was Edwin Harris, 78, of Raleigh, who finished in 24:52.
The race, now in its fourth year, and its companion event, the annual Special Olympics Polar Plunge, raised $55,000 for Special Olympics of North Carolina.
More than 1,000 runners participated in the race, and 120 braved temperatures in the 30s to take the plunge into Lake Raleigh.
Theo Groelle of Dillard Drive Middle School raised more than $2,300 for the Polar Plunge.