Oak Park and River Forest High School is seen on Monday, Sept. 27, 2021, on Lake Street in Oak Park, Ill. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

For Mike Powell wrestling isn’t just a sport. It’s a way of life – myriad steppingstones that give people, especially children, a chance to build self-confidence, find inner strength and learn through adversity. It’s an experience, said Powell, that he hopes to soon bring to Oak Park’s District 97 middle schools.

“There is an intimacy, a vulnerability and a humility that come with wrestling, not to mention discipline and hard work, that are very unique to the social-emotional learning and development world,” Powell, an Oak Park resident and former head and assistant wrestling coach at Oak Park and River Forest High School, told the D97 school board at its Nov. 16 meeting.

 In a presentation over Zoom, Beye School special education teacher Michael Colucci and OPRF wrestling coach Fred Arkin backed Powell’s proposal to launch a wrestling program for Gwendolyn Brooks and Percy Julian middle schoolers next year. Beye School is at 230 N. Cuyler Ave.

They highlighted how much the sport has changed over the years, including a continued rise in girls wrestling. Illinois and 31 other states sanctioned state championships for girls wrestling programs, according to the national nonprofit Wrestle Like a Girl. Arkin, who is also on the school board at the high school said one of OPRF’s most diverse sports teams is the wrestling team, which often pulls in many girls of color every year.

“We try to be a home for all,” Arkin told Wednesday Journal in a separate interview.

At the Nov. 16 meeting, Colucci shared with the board that he, Powell and Arkin are committed to creating a program at D97 focused on inclusivity. The wrestling team –  which would likely debut in the 2022-23 school year and include Brooks and Julian students – is “no-cut” and would not have any tryouts, Colucci said.

“We include everyone, regardless of their gender identities, size, ability and body type,” he said.

Colucci also told the board he recently polled about 300 students from Brooks and Julian middle schools and learned that about 24% of them were interested in participating in a wrestling program. During the presentation, Colucci also outlined other details, spotlighting the program’s needs. Finding a space to practice, to obtain and store wrestling mats and ways to cover the costs for transportation, Illinois Elementary School Association fees and maintenance are a few things to consider and discuss, Colucci said.

The plan to create a wrestling team at District 97 was not up for vote or an official board discussion, wrote district communications director Amanda Siegfried in an email to the Journal. The presentation was meant to provide the board with information and an opportunity to ask questions or give feedback, Siegfried said.

“We expect that there may be some adjustments as a result,” she wrote. “We do not have a timeline for when the proposal will go back before the board, but it likely won’t be until early next year.”

At the meeting, board member Venus Hurd Johnson showed some favor for the proposed wrestling program but inquired more about its logistics. Since the team would be open to Brooks and Julian students, they would need a common space to practice, but the “where” and “how” were among Johnson’s biggest concerns.

“How are the Brooks kids supposed to get to Julian, or the Julian kids get to Brooks, or either of those kids get to a third location for practices?” she asked.

Powell told Johnson those parts of the program still need to be ironed out and his goal at the Nov. 16 meeting was to get the board “excited to start the program.” He also noted that Oak Park’s wrestling community, the Huskie Wrestling Family, and his own youth organization, Beat the Streets Chicago, would be willing to step up and come together to lend a helping hand.

For now, Powell wanted the board to know that the sport of wrestling can make a huge impact on young children’s lives – and District 97 could be next.  

“When you train as hard as a wrestler does and you walk out on a wrestling mat and you’ve built a relationship with the coach in your corner … and you lose a wrestling match that you give your all [to], that you’ve prepared for, it’s devastating,” Powell said. “You come off [the mat] and you’re forced to grow, and reflect, and deal with your emotions in a way that’s truly unique to the sporting world.” 

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