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Four Prince Rupert youth wrestle their way to Canadian Nationals

Much untapped talent in the North due to prohibitive tournament travel costs
Tyson Nguyen, provincial wrestling champion and Sarah Clarke bronze medalist in the western age class are two out of four Team Muscle Panda Wrestlers who qualified to attend the Canadian National Wrestling Championships in Vancouver from March 24-26. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)

Four Prince Rupert youths have qualified to join the best of the nation’s best at the upcoming Canadian Wrestling Championships in Vancouver from March 24-26.

Tyson Nguyen, Sarah Clarke, Mary-Jane Rojeski-Pion and Tyler Harris will all attend the three-day tournament at the Vancouver Convention Centre to compete in the U19, U17, and U15 convergence of athletes. They will be vying for titles in two of the three age classes, which has 12 weight classes in each of the Men’s Freestyle, Women’s Wrestling and Men’s and Women’s Greco-Roman wrestling.

Dane Waldall, owner of Muscle Panada Wrestling, said it is the first time his athletes have ever attend the national competition.

“For this season, all four of them started training in October. Then the tournament season started in December. They competed in the Canadian Western Age Class Wrestling Championships in January.”

The wrestlers all placed and medalled in that tournament which qualified them for the U17 and U19 age bracket at the national championships.

Jason Hoang, the head coach, said Muscle Panda wrestlers would stand out among the other teams at the competition because, coming from a small community, the club focuses more on their program and have fewer distractions than clubs in the Lower Mainland.

“We are quite determined to show what we have up here. We sometimes train up to five hours a week … so they are competition ready,” he said.

However, the largest hurdle for the Rupert wrestlers is not the potential abilities of other athletes but is to overcome travel costs.

“The biggest challenge is and always will be the funding. It costs a lot of money to travel out of Prince Rupert by plane,” Hoang said.

Even as the airport operations manager finding cheaper flights for his athletes doesn’t come easy.

“It’s still $600 a head just to go down, plus there is accommodation and meals needed for the five-day trip,” he said.

The costs are quite “overwhelming” and more than any athlete should have to pay, Hoang said.

Registration for the national tournament is $700 per athlete.

“That’s just registration,” the head coach said. “You still have to pay for a Wrestling BC fee, then a Wrestling Canada membership and two entry fees for Greco-Roman wrestling and freestyle wrestling.

Hoang believes young athletes in the north are penalized by the distance with the travel costs they must face to attend competitions. He cited another sport that he coaches in town where athletes just spent more than $10,000 collectively to attend a volleyball tournament down south.

Waldall said the conversation isn’t a new one as he has talked with numerous coaches in other sports boards. He also works with a new sport called Muay Thai which is a version of Thai kickboxing.

“I’ve explained it to people that for our athletes to go to the four major wrestling tournaments, Icebreaker, War on Floor, Age Class Provincials and Nationals, we’re looking at a budget of $6,000 to $7,000 per kid per season,” he said.

The Muscle Panda owner compared the thousands of dollars for the Rupert athletes to attend competitions against the cost of athletes from Frazer Valley.

“Their travel cost per athlete is $50 because they can take the sky train and bus everywhere.”

Wrestling athletes in the North have pretty much tapped out every funding avenue they are eligible for. As a for-profit business, grants are not available to the club or the wrestlers.

Waldall said there are some fantastic athletes in the North, but travel costs limit their abilities, with many kids not able to reach their full potential.

“We have to do all this travelling just to get to the qualifying tournaments, whereas many others have the qualifiers right on their front doorstep,” Waldall said. “Say these kids go to Nationals and some of those qualified go to Internationals or PanAms. How much fundraising do we have to do? We’ve pretty much tapped out every source.”

The coaches said the ability of the team is phenomenal and they hope to go far at the Vanoucver competition.

“One hundred per cent of our tiny rural team that went to qualify did qualify for nationals in two different divisions against 400-odd other athletes,” Waldall said, adding that from a small northern community, that is a wrestling feat worthy of recognition.