When Nicole Benton, 36, was a junior in high school, she decided to try out for the Amsterdam High School varsity wrestling team. Her father, who was the coach, was not too happy.
“My dad said absolutely not,” Benton said. “He was not going to have a girl on his team.”
But Benton tried out anyway. “To make my dad mad, because I think I was angry with him,” she joked. She’d been cut from the basketball team — at 5-foot in height, she’s not exactly built for basketball — and she needed a way to stay in shape during the soccer offseason.
It turned out that Benton was a pretty good wrestler. So good that she eventually became an All-American. Though Benton stopped wrestling after high school to focus on soccer at Le Moyne College in the Syracuse area, she never shed her love of wrestling. It’s in her blood, after all. Her father, Ken Benton was the wrestling coach at Amsterdam High for more than two decades before retiring in 2014.
“I have missed it, and I haven’t really been around it all that much recently because our kids are little,” Nicole Benton said.
That is, Nicole Benton hasn’t been around wrestling recently until now. Benton and her fiance, Paul Furman, who is the varsity football coach at Johnstown High School, were looking for a way to get their kids involved in wrestling when they discovered Johnstown didn’t have any youth wrestling options.
“We were kind of stuck trying to figure out what we were going to do with our kids,” Furman said. “Then one night we were on the couch and I looked at [Benton] and kind of half-jokingly said, ‘Why don’t we just start our own program here in Johnstown?’”
Benton, whose father also coached Pee Wee wrestling in Amsterdam on top of his job at the high school, thought starting a Johnstown program sounded like a great idea. That’s how Johnstown Pee Wee Wrestling, which is an affiliate of USA Wrestling, came to be. And after signups on Dec. 1, more than 55 kids, ages kindergarten through 6th grade, are going to take to the mats. Perhaps most noteworthy for Benton, that sizable number includes seven girls.
Benton said she is thrilled to be able to provide her own daughter, 9-year-old Layla Furman, with an opportunity to participate in a sport that she wasn’t able to compete in until later in life. Benton said not only is wrestling physically demanding, requiring strength and agility as another person literally tries to take you to the ground, but the entire experience leads to mental toughness — and from that toughness emerges confidence.
“If you can get on the mat and you can take a hit and you can wrestle for six minutes at full speed, you can do anything,” Benton said.
Not that participants like 6-year-old Talia Spritzer are lacking confidence. Spritzer, who also plays football, baseball and soccer, said she wanted to sign up for wrestling because “I like to beat up boys.” (That was a popular sentiment among the female participants–10-year-old Aria Doney said she signed up because she likes “kicking guys’ butts.”)
Even if they don’t need the confidence boost, giving girls an opportunity at such young ages to compete against boys goes a long way toward normalizing the fact that everybody is equal.
“I think it’s great that she wants to participate. It doesn’t faze her that she’s one of a handful of girls competing against the boys,” said Max Spritzer as he watched his daughter run around the gym with other kids after signing up for the program. “She is super confident in her abilities. Competing against boys is nothing new to her.”
During the wrestling program, the kids will practice twice a week at Johnstown High School. Practices will include warmups, instruction, drills and wrestling scrimmages. Tournaments and head-to-head matchups against other Pee Wee Programs are also planned. In addition to Benton, Furman and a few other parent volunteers, John Swartwout, who runs the Pee Wee football program in Johnstown, will be on the coaching staff.
Swartwout said he is excited about the Pee Wee wrestling program because he expects it to be a boon to sports in Johnstown. Not only can it help feed interest in the high school’s wrestling program, but the program will also introduce kids to a sport that can make them better overall athletes, Swartwout said. When he coached football at Amsterdam High School, Swartwout said he noticed a different skill level displayed by players who also wrestled.
“All those kids that wrestled and played football, there was just something different about them,” Swartwout said. “They were a little bit tougher, they bounced up a little bit quicker.”
Furman, Johnstown’s varsity football coach, is no doubt thrilled about what a contingent of young athletes with wrestling experience can mean for future football teams in Johnstown. But he’s also enthusiastic about the life skills the sport can teach young athletes — especially his daughter.
“Part of the reason that I wanted [my daughter] to wrestle was the mental toughness and preparing her for life,” Furman said. “You’re going to have to deal with things in life that are hard and tough. I think wrestling is great preparation for that. It just mentally prepares you; you can handle things that come your way.”
If kids in the program want inspiration, they can look to young athletes like Samantha Groncki. After starting wrestling when she was 13, the Mohonasen senior has committed to wrestle at Western New England University.
Groncki’s goals are not small. Her aspirations include competing in the Olympics, joining the Army or Air Force and eventually becoming a medic, trauma nurse or other medical professional.
Groncki said wrestling has not only helped her stay focused, it’s taught her to be comfortable with who she is and simply shrug it off when, say, a male wrestler refuses to compete against her.
Mostly, Groncki said, everyone in the wrestling community has been incredibly welcoming.
“I essentially have another family because of it. I have gotten a lot of friends from it. And it’s something fun for me to do,” she said.
For Benton and her family, wrestling is literally a family affair. In fact, that’s why 9-year-old Layla, Benton’s daughter, said she wanted to join.
“My mom wrestled, so I just want to do what she did,” Layla Furman said.
As for Benton’s father, he’s a lot more comfortable with his granddaughter signing up for wrestling than he was when his daughter was trying out, Nicole Benton said.
“I think he is excited because it gives his grandkids and grandkids’ friends a big opportunity to experience something that he loved and he had a great experience with,” Nicole Benton said. She said her father, who wrestled at Johnstown High School, has even been writing training programs that Benton and her fellow coaches can use in the Pee Wee program.
Still, Benton said, her father likely remains surprised that his daughter is the one carrying on the Benton wrestling legacy with the new youth program in Johnstown.
“I probably wasn’t the one he was expecting. That probably was my brother.”
Andrew Waite can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.