Aesthetically, it might seem like wrestling is the one sport that has no chance of happening during the 2020-21 school year.
Pierz Pioneers head wrestling coach Skip Toops would argue his sport is the one best prepared to handle competing in the time of COVID-19.
Toops started a change.org petition titled Let Them Wrestle MN that has 8,654 signatures as of 2 p.m. Monday, Sept. 28. The #letthemwrestlemn hashtag can be found on Facebook and Twitter and Toops himself has been front and center to answer any questions or lesson concerns about wrestling during a pandemic.
“We all saw on Aug. 4 that all of a sudden the rug was pulled out from under football and volleyball,” Toops said. “Whether it caught people off guard or not they had to be reactive. Our goal is to be proactive and create that support and put pressure on the people who make those decisions to show that there is support for this and there are statistics that show that this should happen.
“Every kid still has a choice and every parent still has a choice, but to take something away from kids who deserve this and have been working their whole lives to accomplish goals shouldn’t happen.”
“Yes, I’m focused on wrestling, but I figure if wrestling can win this winter every other sport will, too.”
The Minnesota State High School League will have a meeting Thursday, Oct. 1, outlining a possible postseason for fall sports as well as giving direction for the winter and spring sports.
Norm Gallant, former wrestling coach and current Wadena-Deer Creek activities director, said he hasn’t heard anything about not having a season. He believes the Minnesota State High School League will do everything to have a wrestling season, but believes, just like the fall sports, things will look different. He doesn’t think there will be individual tournaments or 37-team Big Bear tournaments like in years past.
“I think they’re going to try and find a way to make it happen somehow,” Gallant said. “I think it will look different. We’ve had tennis this fall and cross country and they have both looked very different. We haven’t had an individual tennis tournament outside so that would lead me to believe that wrestling individual meets are going to look a lot different. Volleyball doesn’t have any invitationals -- just dual meets so that would lead me to believe wrestling will do the same.
“I have not seen one time where the MSHSL has said wrestling isn’t going to happen. I believe the reality is they are going to do everything they can so it happens, but I think we have to be prepared to not see a 32-team tournament.”
Brainerd head wrestling coach Mikky White said he hopes there will be a season and foresees a dual-meet only season with only teams in a school’s conference. He also expects a later start date.
“I would imagine it will be fairly similar to what the fall sports are doing,” White said. “I could see us having nine duals and then we’ll see what the postseason might look like. Instead of one giant state tournament, it might be three broken up.
“But again, nobody knows for sure.”
Toops said there is evidence to show wrestling is not a high-risk sport people might think it is.
He cited four national individual and dual tournaments that took place over the last three months. Toops said there were 12,000 wrestlers and 75,000 fans combined at the four events. Not one confirmed COVID-19 case was reported after two weeks of tracking after the tournaments.
“If you look at the sport of wrestling, yes, it’s an extremely high-contact rate, but the number of athletes that you’re in contact with is very minimal. In one single wrestling competition, you’ll have contact with one other athlete so community-COVID spread would be minimal.”
Another argument in wrestling’s favor is safety protocols have been in place prior to matches, tournaments and even practices for many years.
“We already have experience with this stuff,” Toops said. “We have health screenings every single day. There is not a day when a kid walks into practice where we don’t have some sort of health screening. Before every single competition, we have doctors or trainers do some kind of health screening.
“In that aspect, we already have everything in place. So it might be just adding one extra step like a temperature check or other COVID-19 symptoms.”
Gallant coached for 20 years and wrestled himself at Staples. He agrees wrestling is well prepared and good at following safety protocols. He did stress wrestling, and no other sport, has had to deal with an air-bourne pandemic before.
“I do think the wrestling community has been very good about hygiene and cleanliness and a lot of things they need to do to mitigate this type of situation,” Gallant said.
Toops said wrestling mats and other equipment is already cleaned on a daily basis to prevent skin issues and spread of other communicable diseases.
“My kids in Pierz, every day they walk out of the wrestling room, they take off all their practice gear and put it in the washing machine. We wash it for them. We dry it for them and it’s clean and disinfected and ready to go for the next day. Every one of them is required to take a shower every single day. Hygiene is a major emphasis in the sport of wrestling. I personally believe that wrestling coaches and officials are the most prepared and the most experienced to deal with these types of situations out of any sport.”
White agreed: “I was just joking about this in that out of any sport we should be the ones who are experts on communicable diseases. We’re the ones trying to prevent it as it is. We already have the measures in place.”
Toops said the Minnesota Department of Health defines exposure to somebody as being inside a 6-foot bubble for 15 minutes or more. He said a full-length wrestling match only lasts six minutes and most of the time it doesn’t last that long. If matches do go into overtime those would only add a couple more minutes.
He said in practices most times the team is split into three- or four-person pods anyway depending on weight class and ability. So a team or school outbreak wouldn’t affect an entire team.
And if there was an outbreak, well Toops said wrestling is again prepared for that as well.
“The sport of wrestling is the easiest sport to contact trace,” Toops said. “We know who wrestled who and when they wrestled them. We keep accurate documentation of that. We’ve been doing that for years and we can do that at every single record. Those types of things show that wrestling shouldn’t just be thrown into a high-risk category.
“Personally, and this is my biased opinion, but I believe wrestling is one of, if not the safest sports to compete in during a pandemic.”