On the Mat in Siberia

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October 1, 2002

 

Holding their own:wrestler Cass, right, with coach Anderson

Holding their own: wrestler Cass, right, with coach Anderson.

In early June 2000, Duke's wrestling team had an away match. Their flight departed behind schedule, and they were late. Their hosts had been waiting for more than two hours in a small warehouse of a gym with several mats and a scoring table. When the team finally arrived, everyone clapped and cheered. The hosts announced the wrestlers' names in struggling English and with theatrical fervor. It was a big production, and the Duke team was not used to the attention. Kids approached them: "American!" They wanted autographs and held out their hats and scraps of paper.

Ulan-Ude, the capital of the Buryat Republic, Siberia, is a town of 350,000, bustling by Siberian standards. If it is known at all, it is for Lenin's bronze head, reputed to be the largest in the world. He wears a pained look. By appearances, it is 1935. Stalin has survived in his architecture, grim and dominating, and in the way things generally are. Everyone is poor. Children beg for coins, "poleeeeease." There is a professional class, though most men farm or mine coal or cut timber, and the women sell their wares and produce in the streets. In the hotel courtyard, prostitutes smoke and wait for business. The weather is nice for a moment or two in June. Winter comes and it stays, and when it does, the people of Ulan-Ude do as they have done for centuries: They wrestle. They are lovers of the sport; "Barba?" they ask, crouching in a stance.

That day, just about everyone in town squeezed into the tiny gym. They laughed and pointed at the fancy blue warm-up suits, all just the same and so clean, and the headgear and the mouth-guards. They learned names and chanted them hospitably--"TOME KESS, TOME KESS!!" A sophomore then, Tom Cass became a crowd favorite when he threw his opponent in the air, rolled him to his back, and pinned him. "TOME KESS GO!"

Cass, now a red-shirt senior, grew up in Las Vegas. He is a good-looking kid, strapping and sleek, with a shaved head, hazelnut skin, and sea-green eyes. So far at Duke, he has recorded enough wins to place him eleventh in all-time winning percentage and he's qualified once for the national tournament. Given the size of his arms and the mean face he can make, Cass is naturally intimidating. In action, he's a rippling mass of energy, barreling into, throwing by, shucking and slamming and generally causing a great deal of pain. But what opponents don't see might be of greater concern to them: the calculated nature of it all. To Cass it is nothing personal, wrestling. It is a science and he is a student. And there is reading to be done. On his nightstand sits a copy of Sun Tzu's The Art of War: "Masking offensives," he says. "You have to make the opponent think that what he sees is what he should be fighting." From Bruce Lee's Tao of Gung Fu and Jeet Kune Do, he read that when you break the opponent's center-line, you make him vulnerable." William Earnest Henley's Invictus is his favorite poem. He scotch-taped it to his wall: "I am the master of my fate/ I am the captain of my soul."

Wrestling is a dynamic sport. The punishments are many and varied and the season is a test of endurance. Clar Anderson, Duke's head coach, has never cut anyone from the team. He says that the sport is demanding enough that the guys do that themselves, and the ones who stick around are the kind who want to find out how hard they can push themselves: "Sometimes they're even harder on themselves than I am on them."

The thing about it, though, he says, is that wrestling, as perhaps no other sport can, provides opportunity to all body-types--even those whose bodies don't work all the way. The deaf compete against the hearing and the blind against the seeing. "Anyone can come out here and be successful." Only one handicapped athlete has ever won an NCAA championship against able-bodied competitors: Nick Ackerman of Campbell University took the Division III wrestling title in 2001--without any legs.

Coach Anderson is a brick of a man, square-jawed, a tireless and highly industrious sort--he built his own house with his own hands. He was born in upstate New York, but there is Oklahoma in his clipped vowels and matter-of-factness. At Oklahoma State, he was a national champion (134 pounds), and from there went on to train for the 1987 Olympics in Eastern Europe, where he lived for one year. "It opened my eyes," he says. It made such an impression on him, life abroad, life under communism, that as a coach he has sought, with support from the Varsity Club and team contributions, to make Duke wrestling one of the more culturally edifying athletic endeavors the university has to offer. "I believe it is essential for these guys to see these things."

The first Duke athletes ever to compete in the former Soviet Union, the ten grapplers took on Moscow's Central Army team and later various club teams throughout the city, made a weekend visit to St. Petersburg, and finished the grand tour in Siberia. "Most of these guys have never been overseas and they can't take advantage of the study-abroad programs because our season overlaps both semesters," says Anderson. For Cass it was priceless. "I have goosebumps."

With pre-season conditioning just around the corner, Anderson is readying for a season with the most talented team he's had in his five years at Duke. Cam Lawler '02 is at his side as assistant coach along with Corey Bell, an ACC champion from North Carolina. Cass is returning for his final year, as are seniors Tommy Hoang and Mike Mitchell, also national tournament qualifiers. They aren't the best in the world, but they've been pretty far around it. Next summer, Anderson hopes, it's off to Cuba.