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A Battle for Survival on the Mat

(This story was published in 2006).

By: Roger Brigham

In 2001, Roger Brigham had his hips replaced. When they finished healing in 2003, he found he no longer had the ability to run and therefore could no longer play rugby, soccer or softball or any of the other recreational sports he had enjoyed for years as an adult.

So he decided to return to wrestling, 18 years after he had finished coaching in Alaska and 28 years after his last college match. Training for the 2006 Gay Games with Golden Gate WC, he made his competitive return to the mat at the 2004 USAW Far Western Regional Championships. Along the way he had to learn entirely new moves, modify his footwork to accommodate his impaired mobility, overcome some emerging metabolic disorders, served on the Federation of Gay Games board ... and regained his love of wrestling. This is his first hand account of what it was like to wrestle at 52 in the Gay Games' new 50-and-over age group.

Done.

My competition career is now finally over.

The heat here was incredible and I was woozy from the moment we got off the plane in Chicago. I didn't sleep Thursday night because the pain in my torn rotator cuff was killing me, then I didn't sleep Friday night because we flew all night. I had an 8:30 a.m. board meeting, barely had time to eat a small lunch, then stood around for several hours to go through the Opening Ceremonies. We ditched the place during the national anthem cause we didn't feel like standing around for a bunch of political victim rhetoric.

Sunday morning we got up at the crack of dawn to get to the arena. There was so much to be done to get things set up. The building had no air conditioning. The clinics were great but I got worn out coaching. I didn't think there was anyway I could survive the next day.

Monday we were up again at the crack of dawn and the heat was worse than the day before. It seemed no matter how much I drank, it wasn't enough.

I had only one match in my weight class/age division, so it was decided that we would run the first couple of rounds of the classes that had lots of wrestlers and put the smaller weight groups directly in the finals. This meant I had to go with an empty belly for a few hours until late afternoon.

But there was no time to worry about that. A bunch of the guys asked me to coach their corner during their matches if I was available. I was screaming my head off for every match and then getting my guys fired up and refocused between their rounds. They listened and they won, won more than they'd ever won before. Every time they had someone in a pinning combination I'd yell for them to raise their heads. They did and they immediately got their pins. It was a great example of immediate positive reinforcement. Our team was rolling.

Somewhere around 12:30 p.m. I passed out in the stands. Thank gawd nobody noticed. I came back to, scarfed down another liter of fluid and came around.

My 62-kilo match came up at about 3:30. Against Noel. The guy I have spent two years teaching how to counter every one of my moves. The guy who knows what I have better than anyone else.

There is nothing harder than wrestling someone you practice with all of the time. You can't fake him into anything.

They blew the whistle. Noel was rigid beyond belief; he always tenses when he wrestles me. I kept telling him to relax. He says thank you, tries to relax ... then tenses right back up again.

I was dizzy as crap. I was not sure I could last through even one period much less three. My usual strategy is to try to drive directly to a pinning combination and finish the match quickly or die trying, but I could not get any of my usual moves on Noel. None of them. I tried smacking his head around, shooting for the angle ... nothing was there.

So it was time for Plan B: use one of the traditional moves I coach others all of the time. Problem: he is covered with sweat on his bony arms. I cannot get a grip with my hands and I can't get in close enough to pinch him with my arms.

Worse, I am really fading.

I push him off the mat. One point for me. Will that be enough?

I push him to the edge again. But this time I go to Plan C: get him in a bear hug.

I never use a bear hug. It's a BAD percentage move for me. It requires me to get control from the front (worst attack position), then do a full torque through my artificial hips with the weight of both of our bodies. I have virtually no strength or control where i need it most. But his singlet is the only place I can get any grip.

I get it and I manage to nail him on his back out of bounds. Three more points. It's 4-0.

Noel head butts me. For the second time. The first time he gave himself a tiny prick that just dripped one drop of blood and was no problem. This time he opened up my eyebrow and the sweat would not let my blood stop flowing.

Plus now I am stunned and I am having trouble standing up. They send me to the corner and I tell Johnny very quietly as we wait for the medic, "I am in serious trouble."

The medic says he can't stop the bleeding and he can't put a bandage on it that will stick. They're going to stop the match.

I now have every gawdam excuse in the book to leave the match and end my career with a gawdam honorable exit. If it were any other match, I would have.

I tell them they have to stop the bleeding. The official, thank goodness, takes a look and tells them to put on "new skin" (a kind of furniture lacquer) and wrap the bandage around my head with tape.

The medic gets ready to apply the gunk and tells me this is going to hurt. I ask Johnny, "Like, pain has ever stopped me?"

They put it on and wrap the tape tightly around my head, over and over again. It feels like my head is going to split.

I go out and bull Noel off the mat once more. Up 5-0. One more point and I will win the period by technical superiority. But I still have no legs and know I can't afford the energy the point would cost. So I double check the score and the time (30 seconds) ... and I let Noel take me down for a point. I rest on my belly and enjoy a good breather.

End of the period. One more to win.

Whatever little I had the first period is now completely gone. I have no idea what I'm running on. I just keep walking into Noel, looking for openings, but with no strength to force my arms in. I lean on him and am able to barely get him to step off the mat before I do. One point.

I walk around with him a little bit, acting like I am trying something but really just wondering when the clock will buzz. I sense the ref is getting ready to tell me to get with it, so I make one final charge. I get my arms around for one last bear hug and wrench with everything I have.

Nothing. He barely moves ... but just enough. We tumble to the mat and he lands on his belly. My strategy worked, but not well enough. I got one point but not the three I was looking for. I try faking that I am trying to turn him, but I move so slowly they put us back on our feet.

Thirty seconds from disaster or glory. Tank on empty. I take the biggest gamble of the day and bait him to go for my leg one more time, I get to my belly and grab the mat for dear life. He almost turns me ... but he can't. We go back on our feet and the clock runs out.

5-1. 2-1. I win. Gold medal. Game, match, career.

Stopped to kiss the mat on my way out.

Done.