It’s a big week: The NCAA Division III Wrestling Championships are this weekend, Friday and Saturday.
And for us in the Augsburg College wrestling program, it’s the biggest stage, with lots of expectations. Since 1995, only Wartburg College or Augsburg have won the National Title. The NY Times did an article on the rivalry last year – you can check it out here.
It’s been a trying year for us though: there has been a lot of adversity – losing a returning All-American and a National Qualifier to injuries, struggles through the year of not performing up to “Augsburg standards” at big tournaments, seeing ourselves ranked as low as 20th in the nation this year, and having a generally younger and inexperienced squad. The pressure has been tough on the athletes and the coaching staff, and we’ve had to adjust our mentality and approach to things mid-season, trying to take a team that wasn’t very battle-tested and prepare them for the end of the year’s ultimate tests: The Regional Qualifying Tournament and this week’s National Tournament.
There’s a lot of uncertainty in all that work; going into our Regional Qualifier two weekends ago, we weren’t sure how it would turn out. A poor result, even an average one, would probably mean the end of a few pretty amazing streaks: 24 straight years of top 4 team finishes & at leaset 5 All-Americans. So the pressure was on. But the athletes responded, and put in an effort over and above expectations: 8 National Qualifiers, all 10 placing in the top 4 of the tournament. In that last round, we had the opportunity to send all 10 to the National Tournament.
And now, here we sit, on the eve of the National Tournament, the biggest stage. 8 National Qualifers, 2nd most of any team in the nation, in a position to again place in the top 4, gain 5 or more All-Americans, and even a shot at the National Title. Yet, the final rankings last week put us at #9 in the nation – there are those out there that well, see this team and think what’s realistic is a top 10 finish. We only have one returning All-American (A national champ last year) and two returning national qualfiers. 3 of them weren’t even in the starting lineup last year. So their predictions do have a dose of reality to them – perhaps it’s really an indicator of what this team’s capable of.
I guess our guys could get caught up in results – what people think we’re capable of, the expecations of a program’s tradition like ours, even their own expectations or reality of what they’re capable of. But I think what our whole team has learned this season, and is focused on this weekend, is embracing the opportunity that’s before them.
They embrace opportunity, both in honesty of what’s facing them – adversity, capability, challenge – and in the possibility, belief, and importance of embracing it. They might fail; but, they might turn in what could be the most impressive effort by an Augsburg team, considering the expectations and capabilities placed on them going into this weekend. But, they know this – embracing the opportunity is the most important thing, because that says something about them – what they trust in, what they value, who they are. Courage comes to mind; so does integrity; so does faith. They embrace the opportunity, because of the result that may come out of it, of course, but more so, because it is worth their time and effort, and it is expression of who they are.
10 individuals and 1 team will be crowned champions this weekend. In other words, the rest of the competing individuals and teams will go home disappointed on some level. But the thing is, no one remembers those results, even the competitors, after time. What they remember is that they had the strength of character and faith to embrace opportunities when they came, because that’s really what life is about. I tell the guys all the time: “The whole point is, you can look at yourself, and know you had the courage to step on that line, shake hands, and go after it when the whistle blows, not even knowing what will come out of it. Because that’s really what matters…it’s what people will remember about you, and what you’ll remember about yourself.”
The lesson of embracing opportunity this weekend on a wrestling mat is one that’ll extend into their lives: and that is strength of character, who they are; and faith, the courage to live into that is really what life is about. When they take meaningful jobs, become husbands and fathers, they’ll embrace those as opportunities that will bring a lot of fulfillment and joy into their lives, while being honest about the challenges of living into those roles. In the end, that is fundamentally what faith is about, embracing opportunity – entering into life deeply and honestly, even though the end result isn’t assured or known.
Such faith, in the midst of embracing opportunity – I believe that is the place we encounter God.
It’s gonna be a great week, and along with the athletes, the other coaches, we’re excited to embrace this opportunity coming up this weekend.