The alarm goes off, and he stirs. Back home at Salt River, it’s 6 a.m. But 1,669 miles northeast is where he awakes this morning. He could lie there, under the covers, and wait for the alarm to go off again, thinking to himself, “Just five more minutes.” After all, he was robbed of two hours due to the time-zone difference.
Relieved that there was no crash on his first-ever plane ride on his way here, he drowns himself in thoughts about the day that lies ahead of him.
Jet lag still lingering, causing an unsettled feeling, he rises out of the comfortable hotel bed and begins to dress himself with the red, dark blue and gold colors, identifying him as a member of the Arizona team.
And so Jason James, Jr. prepares for his first day of national competition at the FargoDome in Fargo, North Dakota. For the next five days, he will live, breathe and possibly bleed the 2014 Cadet National Greco-Roman and Freestyle Wrestling Tournament.
James’ first few steps out of the hotel are unsteady as he walks into blinding sunshine and thick, humid air. The landscape becomes clearer. Between the college buildings and off into the distance are farmlands, but no real smell of agriculture. Pacing toward the dome and his first battlefield, James is greeted by a building erected in the early 1990s with reddish-brown bricks and cream-colored accents, suggesting they used to be white.
Inside the FargoDome, anticipation builds. As family and friends are purchasing tickets, James and his teammates prepare for battle, showing the FargoDome staff their badges. As nostrils fill with the smell of cinnamon-roasted almonds, James, his coaches and teammates usher themselves toward the south side, where they can enter the arena. Closer to the entrance, stadium lights and chatter from hundreds of people replace the cool cinnamon air. His eyes become wider and his stomach drops as he takes in this new, intimidating environment.
About 40 steps down to ground level, the arena is flooded with teams and 23 mats. That’s about double what he’s used to seeing at a state tournament. On the floor, Team Texas in their red, white and blue warm-up suits jogs around.
Team Illinois, taking up a whole mat, goes over grappling drills. Forty-six other teams representing 45 states and Puerto Rico do the same. A total of 980 wrestlers seek to become the national champion in their weight division.
James will wrestle at the highest weight class in the tournament, 280 pounds. “This experience is just amazing. Seeing all these mats in one place, and all the people,” he is thinking to himself.
A few hours into the first day of matches, the FargoDome witnesses triumph and defeat over and over again. Boys with bodies that resemble perfectly chiseled gladiators smile broadly after defeating their opponents, moving one step closer to the national championship. Others hold back the tears with all the strength left in them—waiting until they are off the mat to pour out their frustration.
A wrestler from Louisiana exits the floor immediately after losing, to hide from the embarrassment. His victorious opponent shakes the other coach’s hand and again clothes himself in the team jumpsuit to stay warm and limber.
The reactions are understandable. After all, these are just 15- and 16-year-old boys.
“All it takes is one loss and you’re done,” explains referee and Salt River High School wrestling head coach Na Humma. “But there is no such thing as a bad wrestler at nationals. When you’re defeated, you’re defeated by one of the best.”
The Arizona team sits on the west side of the arena, 23 rows up. One by one, the wrestlers make their way down to their assigned mats to compete. James sits to the side, a few chairs to the left of his team, expressionless, with no headphones in his ears.
Then finally, after waiting most of the day, he sees his name on the board: “AZ – J. James – Mat 12 – Weight 285 – Match No. 1061.”
It is time.
Making his way down the stairs, fumbling with his bag, his mind races.
At nationals they require you to wear two different singlets. James is wearing the incorrect one. As he rushes to change and come back, his opponent is warming up, jumping up and down with his headphones in. James meets with his coach and looks for guidance. The lingering competitive match-up before him offers more time for him to prepare. Going over weaponry in his head he goes over moves and keeps himself warm by pacing.
The whistle blows. The match before has ended. A scrawny kid Maryland won his match and proceeds to his next match, meanwhile James and his counterpart shed their jumpsuits and reveal their singlets. His foe is no taller than he is, with dirty-blonde hair and meaty hands. His singlet is blue.
The referee checks both wrestlers for prohibited objects before the two head to war.
They meet face to face and shake hands.
The whistle blows, and both wrestlers take two steps before locking hands. James’ foe is strong, but not that strong. They circle right, still joined at the hands, battling for control over the grip. James has his right foot out, suggesting a throw, but his experienced foe sees it and moves the other way, causing James to lose his footing. They dance for a second, and in a flash James goes down. Two points for the Indiana kid. The referee stands them up and they set up again. Again they go to work on each other, fighting for the better grip, dancing in circles and looking to throw one another to the ground. James goes down again.
Slapping the mat in discontent, he jumps right back up. James has yet to score a point; a few more points and the blonde kid will advance. They meet, forehands pressed, struggle and dance.
Taking a step back, they look at each other and simultaneously go back after each other again like two rams locking horns. Entangled and circling right, they struggle. James tries to pick up his opponent, but fails. James’ opponent takes advantage of the momentum, and James loses his footing while gripping his opponent’s forearms.
The kid from Indiana wins the match. Pink faced, he shakes hands with James, then James’ coach, then the referee.
In one round, James was unable to score any points or pin his foe. After 10 points are scored, the match ends, similar to a 10-run rule in baseball. James lost 10-0.
Beside himself and slightly winded, he holds his head high and shakes the hands of the referees and other coaches.
“I lost. I’m out of this and I have failed,” he thinks to himself.
He walks over to his coach, expressionless, with no answer as to what happened. His coach realizes there is only one thing to say. Smiling, he meets James and places his muscular hand on his shoulder. “Hey Jason, don’t worry about it. Remember—you’re the first person from Salt River to ever compete in the Fargo Nationals.”
He is the first one to wrestle in the Fargo Nationals—the first one from Salt River.