Wrestling with Life - My Letter to University of Maryland Athletic Director
April 4th, 2020
This Essay is broken down into two parts.
Part I is my thoughts on wrestling as a metaphor for life. Part II is my recent letter to the Director of Athletics for the University of Maryland Terrapins.
Part I: Wrestling as a Metaphor for Life.
One of my most favorite art pieces is "Jacob Wrestling with the Angel" by Gustave Dore. It’s both simple in its appearance and complex in its meaning — a compression algorithm, of sorts.
To live is to contend with life, and to contend with life is to wrestle with it.
The story of Jacob is one of struggle. After serving his time with his uncle Laban, and being deceived by him in the most karmic of manners, Jacob returns to his home country. On the way, he encounters an angel, or God himself, and wrestles through the night with Him. Successful in his encounter, he still sustains injury to his hip, but earns the name Israel, and becomes the father of all those who to this day wrestle with God.
The name Israel given to is etymologized as composition of אֵל el "god" and the root שָׂרָה śarah "to rule, contend, have power, prevail over": שָׂרִיתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִים (KJV: "a prince hast thou power with God"); alternatively, the el can be read as the subject, for a translation of "El rules/contends/struggles".
"Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome"
The story of humanity is conflict, but conflict is also lesson in humanity.
Clearly, God could have crushed Jacob but He chose to let Jacob wrestle to a stalemate. God allowed Jacob and even strengthened him to stay in the fight because of what Jacob would gain as a result of having wrestled with God. Like how Odin lost his eye when he gained Wisdom, God injured Jacob’s hip when he gained his new name. Very wabi-sabi.
If people aren’t allowed to win every now and again, then they will stop playing the game. What this story teaches us is God allowing humanity to win occasionally allows humanity to engage God. In the Old Testament, God is amenable to negotiation. A much more primitive version of the virtue, humility, perhaps?
Humility is an interesting take on this story. It is almost like mercy. Almost like Christ allowing himself to be handed over and be defeated. God enters into that dynamic with people and willingly loses. This is also the fundamental reason why God tolerates Satan, because without an adversary like Satan, God gets soft.
Life is a moral struggle. It’s the fundamental essence of being, which is a reasonable observation. So let’s go back to "Why does God let [us] win, sometimes"? I believe it is something like this:
If you’re trying to encourage someone along then you are trying to make them strong; you are not protecting them, because that will not make them strong. That is why wrestling, as I write in my letter below "wrestling can be paradoxically fiercely competitive and violent yet intrinsically cooperative — it cannot be done alone; an opponent's cooperation is required just to make wrestling possible. And it is the opponents resistance that builds your own strength. Through the process of challenging each other, both are made better."
Life is not about protecting each other from wrestling with life. No, it is to affirm life. To wrestle with it. It is to urge others and receive urging from others to confront life, willingly. To be set on a series of challenges right at the point where we may win — though we may lose, which is precisely the point. Like God loving man, what would you do if you cared for someone? Definitely with children. You push them to the limit of their ability or else they would not transcend their current abilities. You don’t crush them, and you don’t protect them.
This is why God, when wrestling us all, doesn’t destroy everyone, because humanity wouldn’t want to continue playing the game. Mortals wouldn’t get stronger, and certainly, "what one wants in the world isn’t always what one gets".
Part II: My Letter to the Athletics Director at the University of Maryland
Hi Damon and Colleen,
My name is Charlie Pinto, University of Maryland alumnus, and 3x Captain and ACC Champion for the Maryland Wrestling program.
Across the country, wrestling is seeing a grassroots resurgence in popularity thanks to the UFC and MMA, particularly among women. Despite that resurgence, the wrestling community still feels a deep pain for the alumni and young men impacted when a university drops support for its program.
In light of COVID-19 and the recent decision by Old Dominion University to drop its wrestling program, I wanted to send you a quick email explaining how much wrestling and the Maryland Wrestling program has meant to me. My intention here is just to share my excitement for Coach Clemson and his staff, to share my turnaround experience with Maryland Wrestling from 2003-2008, and to reiterate the importance of wrestling as the world's longest known and most respected contest.
Excitement for Coach Clemson and his staff
First, I would like to reiterate what I am sure you have heard from other alumni throughout the year: We have never been more excited about the prospects of the Maryland Wrestling program. We are confident Coach Alex Clemson and his staff will deliver.
Coach Clemson is a gentleman, a leader, and a recruiter. The next class of young men he is bringing into the program is a testament to his mission to build a world-class program — not just one that will regularly generate Big 10 Champions and All-Americans, but one that will engage its alumni base, mold fine young men that will contribute greatly to society, and create alumni whose goal is to give back to the program.
First-hand experience turning around a program
In 2002, I was recruited by Coach Tom Miller (may he rest in peace). I was not a world-class wrestler at the time, but he saw in me both promise and the desire to join on a mission larger than myself: Turn-around the Maryland Wrestling program.
Unfortunately, Coach Miller stepped down as soon as classes began in 2003. Then, fortunately, Coach Pat Santoro was hired as Head Coach. Under Coach Santoro's guidance, my Freshman and Sophomore classmates — along with most of the upperclassmen — bought into his process . We put in the time both on the mats and in the classroom. During my Sophomore year ('04-05) I became an ACC Champion and went on to compete at the National Tournament. The following year in ('05-'06) I was selected as team captain and helped lead the program that saw more ACC Champions and Scholar Athletes than ever before.
By year three, the turnaround was proving successful. Years four and five saw even more ACC Champions, All-ACC Academic Honor Rolls, All-Americans and Academic All-Americans than ever before, and as a team we won the ACC Championships for the first time in a very long time and placed top-15 in the country.
Unfortunately, in 2008, Coach Santoro stepped down for personal reasons to become Head Coach at Lehigh. It was a blow to the remarkable turnaround and progress we have made from 2003 until 2008. It was an honor to captain the team during this turnaround.
Coach McCoy took over from Coach Santoro and performed the best he could with what he had. We are all grateful for his tenure and the fellow brothers he developed along the way.
It is an absolute honor to be a Maryland Wrestling alumnus. During my five undergraduate years fighting within this program I looked long into the abyss and saw it staring back at me. I left a part of my soul with the Maryland Wrestling program, and I feel a deep gratitude for the indelible mark the Maryland Wrestling program left on me — and I am almost certain hundreds of Maryland Wrestling alumni — my brothers — feel the same way.
Without Maryland Wrestling, I could not have become more of who I am.
The importance of wrestling
To live is to be in conflict with the world around you, to adapt to changing circumstances as reality unfolds around you, to develop competence in a craft such that you can lose yourself in flow with the task at hand, and to command control over yourself in pursuit of virtue. Simply, to live is to grapple.
There exists no other contest in the short history of humanity that teaches you more about how to affirm and confront life than wrestling. There is a reason why the Ancient Greeks started the last day of their Olympiad with "the Sacred" Wrestling. There is a reason why Jacob wrestled God. There is a reason why Gilgamesh and Enkidu became best friends after a ferocious wrestling match. Wrestling transcends life — it is the Art of Living.
In Plato's Dialogues, Plato depicts Socrates wrestling and defeating Sophists in order to show the superiority of philosophy to eristic (or, argumentation). Plato uses his audiences' familiarity with wrestling as a metaphor for Socrates' way of pursuing wisdom: Through argument, gentle shaming, fair play, and cooperative competition. The oldest and most basic of sport, wrestling can be paradoxically fiercely competitive and violent yet intrinsically cooperative — it cannot be done alone; an opponent's cooperation is required just to make wrestling possible. And it is the opponents resistance that builds your own strength. Through the process of challenging each other, both are made better. In today's climate, our country needs wrestling.
In modern times, almost 25% of our United States Presidents have wrestled. Well known and well respected Senators, Representatives, Secretaries' of Defense, Academy Award Winners, Entertainers, Scientists, Authors, Business Leaders, Military Leaders, and Astronauts have been competitive collegiate wrestlers. And I look forward to seeing this number grow as women's wrestling gains prominence on the pantheon of collegiate sport.
The point I am making here is the following:
- The alumni are excited about the future of the Maryland Wrestling program. Coach Clemson and his staff have the right energy and enthusiasm.
- The process of turning around a wrestling program takes time. We all have given a piece of ourselves to the program and wish to see our legacies continue.
- Wrestling is a part of the Liberal Arts education which, unfortunately, has been lost to modernity. Without wrestling, we lose a piece of our humanity.
Please do consider this email as you navigate the future of Terrapin Athletics.
Class of 2008
 Behind the scenes, Coach Santoro led the process of turning the wrestling program from partially-funded to fully-funded. He redesigned how conferences receive bids to the NCAA Tournaments, giving the ACC the opportunity to compete with the likes of the Big 10, Big 12, and similar powerhouse wrestling conferences. This is part of our legacy, too.
"Jacob Wrestling with the Angel" by Gustave Dore (1855). Image from Wikipedia.org. Information also grokked from Athletics and Philosophy in the Ancient World, Part 2. Sport as Training for Virtue in Classical Greek Philosophy, Section 4. Wrestling with Socrates by Heather L. Reid.
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