Wrestling returns to Basalt High School

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times

BASALT – Ryan Bradley feared the dream he had struggled desperately to keep afloat was about to sink.

The Basalt Middle School science teacher and wrestling coach was sitting in a school board meeting earlier this year, patiently listening as official after official voiced opposition to his plan to return wrestling to the high school after a 10-year hiatus.

“The district finance lady gets up and says, ‘This is a horrible idea that shouldn’t happen,'” Bradley recalled Tuesday. “Then, the assistant superintendent gets up and says, ‘This shouldn’t happen.’ It was frustrating.”

He was undeterred. After all, Bradley had succeeded in turning a floundering middle school wrestling program on the verge of extinction into a Western Slope champion in a few short years after relocating to the valley in 2008. He and other coaches, including former Longhorns standout Thad Eshelman, donated their time, their money and their energy, coaching for free, driving the bus – anything to curtail costs.

Bradley witnessed how wrestling and sports can embolden young men (he was an academic All-State performer in high school in St. Louis, Missouri). He was determined to develop a high school program.

He was determined not to let his kids down.

“I used to coach at Regis (Jesuit in Aurora), and it was a really cool experience, but the kids there didn’t need wrestling,” Bradley said. “They all had wealthy parents and were going to college. They all had good food to eat and were all good students. … They didn’t have huge struggles in life, weren’t coming out of poverty or struggling with a new language and struggling in school.

“These kids have been amazing, and they need this. They deserve this.”

Every one of Bradley’s assistants had a chance to address the school board. Bradley was the last to take the microphone.

“‘The school district spends thousands and thousands of dollars on computer programs to analyze test scores, but what really matters are kids and the connections they have with teachers and coaches,'” he told the crowd. “‘It’s not about the sport, but what you can learn from it. Those skills – hard work, discipline, dedication – that’s what will make sure these kids have success in their lives.’

“I promised we could deliver academic success if we got the team. … I held my breath while they were voting.”

Three years after he and Eshelman first met with school directors and were summarily dismissed, Bradley received his answer: The board unanimously approved the high school wrestling team provided the program could be self-funded.

“It was one the most exciting moments, and there was a huge celebration,” Bradley said. “Then, I was thinking, ‘Oh, crap, how are we going to pay for this thing?'”

The panic was short-lived. After all, he and the Basalt coaches have been here before. They’ve been doing whatever it takes to support the middle school program, which now boasts more than 40 participants – 10 times the number it had in 2008 – while providing opportunities for older student-athletes.

“The last few years, I was driving kids down to Glenwood (High School), where I was an assistant coach,” Bradley said. “I’d have to get out of school after the bell rang, grab a mini bus and pick kids up at the high school, drive all the way down there, then drive them all back and return the bus. We did that five times a week. I wouldn’t get home until 7:30. It was killing me, killing the kids.

“We only got seven or eight kids a year because it’s tough to compete at another school. High School sports are about getting to represent your school.”

Last year, Bradley and others ran the middle school program without any assistance from the district.

“It was crazy. One weekend, we won the middle school conference title and won a huge trophy, … and then I come in on Monday, and they tell me they’re eliminating the program,” Bradley said, his voice filled with emotion. “It broke my heart.”

But not his spirit.

He reached out to the community for aid, and the pleas have been answered.

An impassioned appeal at the Aspen Thrift Store last year resulted in funding for new equipment.

“We were using old high school uniforms from like 2002,” Bradley said. “A teenage boy going out on the mat in a singlet is embarrassing but even more so when they’re all frayed and ripping apart.”

In addition to support from personal donors and other businesses, Big O Tires provided funding and created coupon cards to hand out to customers, committing to donate 5 percent of future sales to the wrestling program.

The cards will serve as tickets Thursday night, when the team hosts a movie night at the Basalt Middle School auditorium. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., and the wrestling film “Veritas” will be screened at 7 p.m. Cost is $5 for children and $10 for adults.

“It’s been a true community effort. Oh my God, we got another $1,000 today in donations,” Bradley gushed. “Everyone has really delivered, and we’re all very grateful.”

The Longhorns will hit the mat Dec. 1 in Hotchkiss. It will be a poignant moment, Bradley said.

“It’s been a long time coming,” he said. “I’m really proud of the core group of kids, the kids who drove to Glenwood every day and competed for another school. These seniors who started with me now get to finish at their own school.

“These kids have inspired me. They made me love wrestling again.”