Wrestling’s new world rises from sand
By Gary Mihoces, USA TODAY
LONG BEACH, N.Y. ” In 1985, a police helicopter patrolling Long Island’s beaches spotted a possible riot below. Upon alerting beach authorities, police learned it was just dozens of vacationing wrestlers from Penn State, Hofstra and other colleges paired off for matches in the sand and circled by 200-300 spectators.
Wrestling was back on the beach Saturday. Organizers did test matches for the first Asics 2005 East Coast National Beach Wrestling Championships, set for Aug. 13 in this Long Island community. Bare-footed wrestlers, most from Long Beach High School, tangled within a yellow rope circle.
“It’s fun. It’s different. It’s cool, “says Greg Accetta, 17, a rising high school senior and member of the Long Beach Wrestling Club. “It’s more relaxed than usual wrestling. It’s not all high-tension. You’ve got the water right here, the beach.”
Although an earlier thunderstorm had emptied the beaches, about 100 spectators watched from the boardwalk. Others appeared on the balconies of nearby condos.
Admission for next month’s event will be free. Just getting attention is the aim for wrestling, which has battled elimination of college programs and faces potential cutbacks in the number of wrestling styles at the Olympics. Beach volleyball is the rage. There’s beach soccer and beach tennis, too. Here comes grappling.
This won’t be the first beach wrestling tournament in the USA. The Oregon Wrestling Association hosted a tournament in May. But this will be the sport’s East Coast debut, with five divisions: high school boys, high school girls, college men, open men and open women.
“Wrestling needs promotion. That’s the key, putting it in front of people who wouldn’t pay $2 to watch a high school or college match, “says Al Bevilacqua, an organizer here.
Last year, wrestling’s international governing body recognized beach wrestling as part of its “new world of wrestling, “noting it was a traditional sport in Africa.
The event here is being organized by New York’s Metropolitan Wrestling Association (MWA). It is sanctioned by USA Wrestling, the national body, and sponsored by Asics America, official equipment supplier to USA Wrestling.
Bevilacqua says funds from entry fees will go toward the MWA’s “Beat the Streets “program, aimed at bringing wrestling to public schools in New York City. But Bevilacqua, chairman of the “Beat the Streets, “says just raising awareness of wrestling will help.
“When I meet with a lot of middle school principals (in New York City), they don’t even know what wrestling is.”
The perils of sand
Long Island is a hotbed of high school wrestling. Its alumni include Olympian Kerry McCoy and actor Billy Baldwin.
Saturday, the local high school team got its first taste of official beach wrestling.
“You sink in. It’s hard to take shots “for takedowns, said John Candon, 15, who will be a junior at Long Beach High.
Although many of the wrestlers wore their usual one-piece singlets, required attire for the tournament will be shorts only for men, one- or two-piece suits for women.
International referee Paul Kieblesz, who officiated Saturday, says attire won’t be too skimpy. No thongs or bikinis.
“We don’t want exposure. The sand can pull pants off, “he says.
Throwing sand in an opponent’s face is illegal, but the sand is a factor beyond just the footing. Leo Palacio, 42, an assistant coach at Long Beach, lost a rugged match to Jon Masa, a Long Beach alum and a two-time All-American at Hofstra, where he will be a senior next season.
“The knee is fine. The back is fine. But the sand tastes terrible, “Palacio said later.
He also got sand in his eyes: “There’s a lot of sand flying around. I don’t know what they’re going to do, if they’re going to stop it if you get sand in the eyes.”
Kieblesz said officials will use injury time to get towels for wrestlers with sand in their eyes.
Although sand might seem softer than a mat, there were opinions here it wasn’t.
That was the verdict from Basil Donato, 17, a recent graduate of Long Beach, after he was thrown by Masa: “The mat has more give to it. But anytime you wrestle Masa, it’s going to hurt.”
Looking for attention
The high school divisions will be divided into four weight classes; the college and open divisions will have only two. The classifications will be determined after registration, based on the contestants’ size.
So there likely will be some mismatches.
How that plays out remains to be seen. But after losing to Masa, Donato said, “The sand is an equalizer. I wouldn’t have gone as long with him on the mat. There is a lot of drag on your feet.”
Bare feet. Tournament sponsor Asics America is obviously not in this event to sell wrestling shoes.
“This is a new sport. It’s wrestling. I’m involved in wrestling. Let’s give it a shot and see what happens, “says Neil Duncan of TW Promotions, which handles wrestling marketing and promotions for Asics.
Along with sweeping changes this year in the rules of international matches, beach wrestling is part of the world governing body’s plan to pump up the sport’s entertainment appeal.
USA Wrestling had scheduled a national championship for beach wrestling May 1 in Las Vegas, on the heels of the U.S. national championships, which featured Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling. It called off the event, citing venue problems.
USA Wrestling had planned to offer prize money in Las Vegas. There will be no prize money here, and this won’t be a field of elite U.S. wrestlers. Although no women participated in Saturday’s run-through, organizers say some are expected for the tournament.
But USA Wrestling will have observers here. It wants to be ready in case the international governing body holds a world beach championship.
“We kind of had the same philosophy with women’s wrestling when it first started, “says Rich Bender, executive director of USA Wrestling. “We can’t just stand around, no pun intended, and stick our head in the sand.”
Duncan hopes for 100 competitors or more here. Bevilacqua hopes for spectators by the thousands. “We want the national championships next year, “he says. “Imagine that on Coney Island?”