Wade Schalles’ hall of fame wrestling career didn’t begin in a gym or as a playground bully. His toughness came from being the neighborhood runt.
In the ’60s, the eventual 15-time national champion was just trying to survive grade school. Unfortunately, all of the neighborhood kids who lived within three blocks of his family’s house were either two or three years older than young Schalles. He had to take some lumps if he wanted to get in a game.
As usual, the boys’ games of kickball, football and tag usually ended with a squabble about the rules and, then, impromptu wrestling matches on a nearby patch of grass.
“I’d always end up on top when we got to wrestling. I don’t know why, it just ended up being that way,” Schalles said. “It started more out of survival.”
His beginning in the sport could be seen over the weekend as Schalles conducted his fourth-annual clinic for Juneau’s youth and amateur wrestlers. This year, his unusual coaching style attracted a pack of first-time grade-schoolers, a squad of veteran high-school heavyweights and even a middle-aged coach looking to learn some new skills.
Schalles lined them all around a circle on the wrestling mat, picked a teenager to step in the middle and told the rest to knock him out by any means necessary. One at a time, they dove in from all sides while Schalles laughed and offered words of encouragement to the younger participants as two and then three of them joined forces to push the teen from the middle.
Many unusual, impromptu drills and games such Schalles’ version of King of the Mountain, have made his clinics a place for local wrestlers and coaches to get excited about the sport again before their season.
“Our job is to take the kid with a battery that needs charging and stick his finger in an electric socket,” Schalles said.
The clinic has also become a place where wrestlers can learn to turn their skill set and body types into an advantage, rather than limitation. Schalles was heralded as a very creative wrestler during his career, often improvising new countermoves to take away his opponent’s strongest areas. Not all kids are creative wrestlers, though, and not all creative or traditional wrestlers are alike, Schalles emphasizes.
“You have to determine the athlete and train him to match his skill set. Half of coaching is knowing the skill sets and the other half is recognizing them,” he said. “If you tell a creative kid to go basic and take the creativeness out of him, you can’t expect him to come back to practice tomorrow.”
Schalles does acknowledge that basics are important for his sport, though, saying that only “about 20 percent” of wrestling can be creative.
To teach those basics, and to work with the kids who are better fundamental wrestlers, Schalles now brings friend and fellow coach JD Robbins from Florida’s Orievdo High School.
“We want them to be proficient in the new fundamentals of what’s current, not the basics from 1979,” Robbins said. “I coached the junior national team, and these wrestlers are no different other than how hard, long and frequently their workouts are.”
Schalles also has a connection with so many high school wrestlers because many of them are living his fondest memory in a highly decorated career. That is, winning his first high school title.
“I won world titles, NCAA titles and everything else. That high school title, though, was the first time I realized that I actually am good,” Schalles said. “Ask a millionare who has 472 (million) now – what was their milestone. Nine times out of 10 it was the first million. I realized I was right, that I had the formula for success. I just needed to repeat what I just did.”