The Purest of All Sports

Our best kept athletic secret

Western Pa. is the home of champions in the purest sport of all
Monday, March 12, 2012
By Thomas M. Reiter
Copyright: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Can you name the single high school sport in which Western Pennsylvania remains truly elite, producing Division I athletes at a rate comparable to the top regions in the country? Hint: It doesn’t involve a ball, a stick or a glove.

The answer is wrestling, the world’s oldest, purest and fairest sport.

There are 275,000 American high school wrestlers. And few, if any, regions surpass Western Pennsylvania in raising great ones.

Wrestling demands extraordinary mental toughness, perseverance, the courage to confront daunting challenges and the will to recover from painful defeats. Our community embodies and transmits to our young people these qualities. It’s our history and culture: hard-working, tough, resilient.

Western Pennsylvania has produced an Olympic gold medalist (Mt. Lebanon’s Kurt Angle), the consensus greatest high school wrestler (Jefferson-Morgan’s Cary Kolat), perhaps the best public high school team ever (North Allegheny, 1987) and countless NCAA champions and All-Americans.

The WPIAL’s finest wrestlers come from rural communities, blue collar towns, affluent suburbs and, on occasion, from the city of Pittsburgh.

What is the secret to our wrestlers’ successes? Excellent athletes, superior coaching and first-rate competition play a role, of course. There is, however, another, less obvious reason.

With its 14 weight classes, wrestling embraces all athletes — tall or short, scrawny or stocky, fast or not-so-fast. When it comes to physiques, wrestling is the most accepting of sports. But, when it comes to character, wrestling is the most unforgiving.

Wrestling demands extraordinary mental toughness, perseverance, the courage to confront daunting challenges and the will to recover from painful defeats. Our community embodies and transmits to our young people these qualities. It’s our history and culture: hard-working, tough, resilient.

It is fitting, therefore, that for four decades Pittsburgh has been home to the marquee national high school wrestling event, the Dapper Dan Wrestling Classic. At 4 p.m. on March 25, the eyes of the nation’s wrestling community will be on a packed Fitzgerald Fieldhouse on the University of Pittsburgh campus.

In the main event, Western Pennsylvania wrestlers and other Pennsylvania seniors will take on Team USA, which comprises the very best from the other 49 states. The contest will feature superb athletes, including, almost certainly, future NCAA champions and possibly even a future Olympic champion.

The national wrestling media — yes, it does exist — has declared Team USA the prohibitive favorite. Just like last year. And every other year.

Yet, improbable as it may seem, the outcome is far from certain. Last year, the result turned on a single match between the No. 1 wrestler in the country and a relatively unheralded, last-minute substitute from Derry Area High School. Could the Derry wrestler possibly keep it close? He did not.

He won easily, leading Pennsylvania to yet another stunning victory over the rest of the country. Surprising to many, perhaps, but not to those who know the secret of Western Pennsylvania wrestling.


Thomas M. Reiter is a Pittsburgh attorney who loves wrestling and wrestled in high school but has no other connection to the sport or to Dapper Dan.