My teenage daughter is a grappler. She wrestles. And in Idaho that means that during the high school season she wrestles both boys and girls–very few girls and lots of boys well on their way to manhood. During the freestyle season she wrestles more girls and we travel to all-girl tournaments, where the competition is both serious and fierce.
When my daughter was in the eighth grade she informed me that she would like to start wrestling. Being unfamiliar with the sport, my immediate response was an emphatic no. I explained that I didn’t want her to compete in a “boys’ sport”. I told her that I saw no value in it. But after the initial surprise and upon further reflection—I suppose influenced, at least in part, by a life altered by cancer—I decided that she, rather than I, should determine the experiences she would have in life. And so I relented and told her that she could wrestle… I warned her it would be difficult, would require a great deal of self-discipline… and courage. And she would be required to agree to my rules.
Rule 1: No quitting. If you start the season you must finish the season. No matter how difficult it is and whether you find success or failure, you will not quit.
Rule 2: Never cry on the mat. I have seen boys cry on the mat. Leave that for them. You may need to find a quiet corner later, after your match, but do not be a girl that cries on the mat.
Rule 3: Do not expect preferential treatment because you are a girl. Just because you have chosen a sport dominated by boys does not mean that you should expect to be treated differently because you are a girl. In fact, if anything, you will need to work harder to demonstrate that you are serious and a true competitor.
Rule 4: Above all, you must maintain your femininity. Just because you have chosen to participate in a male dominated sport does not mean that you should compromise yourself or try to be something that you’re not.
My daughter agreed to my rules and next month she will begin her third season of wrestling. It’s safe to say that she has learned a great deal about self-discipline, strength, courage, and fitness. She has learned the self-satisfying excitement of winning as well as the humbling disappointment of losing. She now knows the strength gained from the support of her teammates and the thrill of a sport in which two competitors, alone on the mat, face off. She has even become competitive on the national level. At the end of her first high school season, as her coach was making remarks about each wrestler at the season banquet, he described her, the only girl on the team, as brave. I could not have been more proud.
Nearly a month ago I was forced to grapple as well. I was faced with shocking and frightening news and had to wrestle with the knowledge that cancer had metastasized to my brain. Once the initial shock wore off I realized that I had to face my challenge. I could even say I performed a mental take down and today I completed the match–I finished a course of radiation designed to annihilate those lesions. As I lay on the radiation table, my head bolted in place so that I could not move, so that the radiation beams would be accurate within a millimeter, my mind wandered and I found myself thinking about my daughter, the wrestler.
I thought about the stoic manner in which she has approached her self-induced challenge and I thought about the four rules that I had imposed upon her. As I lay there with invisible beams penetrating my skull, it occurred to me that those four simple rules apply to life. A life well lived does not allow for quitting, for crying on the mat, for expecting preferential treatment, or for forgetting who we are. A life well lived requires strength, courage, faith, and desire.
As we prepare for another season of wrestling—nine months in all—another season of bouts and take downs, throws and pins, wins and losses, I do not need to remind my daughter of my four rules. She knows them well. She lives them.