You kneel on the edge of the mat. Your lungs are on fire, screaming for oxygen after another vicious scramble that resulted in no points. Sweat slicks your entire body. You become aware of an uncomfortable pool of saltwater forming in the whorls of your ear and you jam a finger up under the blazing yellow of your headgear and swipe the moisture away.
You start to rise, to head back to the center of the mat, where he’s waiting for you, bouncing on his toes and staying loose. The ref is yelling and pointing. You can’t hear the voice. Its been lost in the background, pushed into irrelevance by your mind as you try to focus on the single, acceptable outcome of this match. You follow the pointing digit of the referee and see that your shoe is untied. For the second time in as many interminable seconds, you kneel and begin the subconscious routine of re-tying the laces on the shoe. In the break, as you struggle for breath, you begin to take in everything.
You look at the scoreboard, the black cube providing a bleak summary of the last five minutes and forty-five seconds of your life. You’re losing 2-1 and that realization twists your guts, gripping them in an iron vise and squeezing. You’ve worked four years for this, for a shot at a state title. You’ve bled. You’ve sweat. You’ve even cried. Two-a-days and summer workouts for nearly fourteen hundred straight days. Early morning runs and late-night lifting while all of your classmates were sleeping or partying. You skipped prom. And homecoming. You lost three girlfriends and one best friend, a kid you’ve known since birth. You came out of the womb with wrestling shoes on. Both of you did. But he doesn’t have what you have. He didn’t want it badly enough. He isn’t you. He was content with mediocrity. He allowed wrestling to become a pastime, relegated this sport of yours to something that just filled the time slot between school and video games.
You never allowed anything to distract you from this dream. You pushed and sacrificed and suffered and starved to be here, to wrestle this final match of your high school career. This is it. This is everything. The next quarter-minute held sway over the next four years of your life. Without this win, college becomes a huge question mark. The scouts and recruiters had made that clear. You can hear the voices echoing in your head, telling you that they weren’t interested in a place-winner. They wanted a champ.
Your parents wanted one too. They were out there somewhere in the darkness beyond the mat. Out there in the anonymous crowd of white noise, your parents were praying for a win. Somewhere out there was mom, who cried herself to sleep every night and dad, who’d stopped chemo to be here.
You have to win this. Have to.
There is no tomorrow.
You tighten the laces and stand.
You turn and walk back to the center of the mat.
Fifteen seconds left.
The obstacle to your future, all five-foot-three and one-hundred and twenty pounds of him, bounces on the balls of his feet as he waits. He’s a freshman and he’s seconds away from winning his first state title. You’re a senior and seconds away from never winning one.
You step on the line.