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A camp for learning all the right moves

Published Sep. 1, 2005

Chris Pelkey watched World Wrestling Entertainment on television with his uncle and fell in love.

He loved the roar of the crowd, the eyeball-to-eyeball intensity and the way the wrestlers extricated themselves from a tangle of arms and legs.

Even as a 9-year-old, he knew that what he was watching was choreographed, but he vowed that someday he would wrestle professionally.

"I wanted to play other sports, but wrestling had me most fascinated," he said.

The rising Dixie Hollins High School freshman, who is now 14, took the first step toward his dream last week by attending a four-day wrestling camp at Dixie called Wrestling Instructions Needed, or WIN. He learned right away that amateur wrestling is much different from what he saw on television.

"The first day I totally got my butt handed to me," he said. "To get beat up and thrown around all day you have to have heart."

The camp, which was attended by 55 young people ages 8 to 18, was designed by Keith Spataro, brother of Dixie's assistant wrestling coach Nick Spataro.

Keith Spataro, who coaches wrestling at Menlo College in Atherton, Calif., asked colleague Paul Keysaw, a coach at Moorpark College in Ventura County, Calif., to help. Dixie's head coach, Edwin Bryant, rounded out the camp's staff.

The participants represented every level of experience, Bryant said. Many, like Pelkey, were getting their first hands-on taste of the sport. Others have been wrestling on high school teams from St. Petersburg to East Lake for two or three years.

"We tried to specialize the instruction so that kids who don't know anything about wrestling felt as comfortable as kids who have been wrestling for a while," Bryant said. "If they didn't know anything, we started with the basics."

Camp began each morning at 10 with lessons on strategy and technique. The coaches demonstrated the moves and then the boys paired up and tried them out.

The afternoons included sessions to build confidence or promote proper nutrition, then a warmup period and matches.

Keith Spataro, who graduated from Seminole High School in 1988 and was a four-time college All-American at San Francisco State, brought his personal philosophy to St. Petersburg along with his wrestling expertise.

"I think that all sports are good for kids, but the thing that sets wrestling apart is that the onus falls on you and your ability to train hard," he said. "Your team members are important, but ultimately, you're the person who has to go out there and perform."

He tried to impress upon the boys that there is more to wrestling than the physical aspect.

"There is not a better feeling in the world than winning a wrestling match," he said. "You're out there by yourself. You don't have a lot of people around you picking up your slack. Your success is a direct reflection of the effort you put into it."

Keysaw, who was an NCAA Division I national champion at California State at Bakersfield, was the camp's head clinician.

"Wrestling is one of the best sports for learning how to interact with individuals," he said. "It breeds self-confidence and self-esteem. You learn not only how to be a competitor, but how to be a gracious competitor."

Rising Dixie Hollins junior Daniel Puckett didn't realize wrestling would be as multifaceted _ or as difficult _ when he tried out for the team as a freshman. His goal then was to get in shape so he would be a better football player.

During football season, Puckett said, he weighs 180 pounds. Before wrestling season is over in the spring, he's down to 165 or 170, thanks to practice sessions that leave him "so tired and sweaty that we can roll back and slide across the mat."

Instilling a respect for wrestling in kids like Puckett was why Nick Spataro wanted to bring his brother from California to run the camp. The overwhelming popularity of football, basketball and baseball _ as well as the television coverage _ overshadows wrestling, so some kids never consider it, he said.

That's especially regrettable, he added, because wrestling is a sport in which virtually any child, including a smaller one, can excel.

"We have a lot of guys who come in at 88, 100 pounds and just can't compete on the high school level in football and basketball," he said. "Wrestling is great for those guys. Once they start wrestling, they really came out of their shell. They start to understand they can make it in anything else they do if they can make it in wrestling."

Pelkey, the 14-year-old rising freshman, knows he has a lot to learn. But before camp ended Thursday, he found out he'll have plenty of opportunity.

In response to his question to Coach Bryant about when he should show up for tryouts, Bryant told him not to worry about it. He's already made the team.

Coach Nick Spataro grapples with 10th-grader Dustin Zitzmann, who faces members of the intermediate group of young wrestlers at the wrestling camp held Thursday at Dixie Hollins High School. Some campers already compete on teams, while others are new to the sport.