As my children entered the high school years, I never imagined one specific turn my life would take. High school — with a rigorous dual studies program at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston — would be intense, and I did not think more could fit into my oldest child’s day. At the time we were living in our former home in Staten Island, and completing homework and studying for exams after a two-hour bus ride seemed daunting enough.
In 2013, at the start of his freshman year, my son, Avery, brought home a sports pamphlet, but not the normal soccer, basketball, or hockey line up. It was wrestling.
Wrestling? Like the WWE? Did Jewish boys actually wrestle? In my mind wrestlers were costumed parodies which came on TV after a day of “Law and Order” reruns on the USA Network, not a sport for nice Jewish boys looking to fit in. Everyone plays basketball; a ball was normal. But a singlet, the garb of wrestlers? Not so much.
Avery decided on his own to enlist in this version of boot camp. He needed a physical outlet and a place to be social and found both on the mat. His first practice was shocking, and as an overbearing Jewish mother, naturally I had to see what the hoopla was all about. My boy completed a three-hour challenge of running the halls of the massive school building and learning to sprawl, followed by an inspirational speech from his coach. I realized any sense of body shame the wrestlers may have had was quickly lost on the half-dressed 14-year-olds staring back at me.
Coach Dave Cilio drove home that there was no quitting, only strength and greatness to be found in each and every teen in the room. His message touted inclusion — don’t we all want our children to feel a part of something?
Not only was I buying into this idea of a sport, I was about to become the team’s mascot.
Squelching the stench of sweat would become the least of my new worries. A singlet is essentially a leotard for boys, leaving little to the imagination. I even learned about the special underwear you buy both to subtly hide any unwanted love handles, and to keep your singlet SMOOTH.
Next step for this mom was cheering and dressing the part. Hey, it is not a full-blown high school sport until at least one mom has a custom-made T-shirt. My message, printed in large, sparkly grey letters, in front of the bright pink fabric: MOTHER OF A KUSHNER WRESTLER. Avery’s name is emblazoned in blue across the back. He was only slightly horrified until he realized I could have decorated a bullhorn.
My 106-pound, less-than-aggressive freshman was learning the art of grappling and I fully embraced my new, and very unexpected, identity as a wrestling mom. In his first match Avery looked like a cat batting at a ball (his opponent). Never did I think I would be saying things like “squeeze” as my child pretzel-wrapped another boy.
Many matches later and a yeshiva-wide wrestling tournament to boot, he is now a senior on the last stance of his high school journey. Through some great wins and some devastating losses, I learned a lot. To start, there is not a more dedicated and realistic coach than Coach Cilio, who has been coaching the team for six years; he adeptly managed every smile after a win, every tear after a loss, and accepted every phone call to talk wrestling or just shoot the breeze. There were ongoing pep talks about strength, dedication, loyalty, camaraderie, and integrity.
At least for Avery, I found that wrestling makes you a better person all around. While Avery was a strong student, he had an Achilles’ heel in history, but if the coach catches on that you have not kept up with your studies, you’ll be met with five more laps around the building and a stern talking to. Avery went on to take two AP history classes and own his history grades, while never missing a practice.
My son has transformed his body, soul, and mind. I transformed my West Orange home into a place for wrestlers from Teaneck to eat and sleep — two pounds of chicken cutlets is now a single portion size for a hungry wrestler — and I am not afraid to allow my son to make his own decisions regarding weight class, priorities, and love. It’s true: I’m a wrestling mom.