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Working at the state wrestling meet certainly gives you a different perspective than simply attending as a fan. I learned that for the first time this year.
I spent a lot of time on the floor, surrounded by the crowd, up close to the action. I spent time in the tunnel, seeing the intense emotion that the wrestlers dealt with, both good and bad. Every competitor there spent the past three months or more cutting weight, practicing and battling with every opponent just to earn a spot at the meet with the goal of returning home with a gold medal around their neck.
For most, that dream was crushed. Just 56 wrestlers realized that dream of being the champion. However, one thing I learned was that state wrestling defines champions in other ways than just the color of the medal around their neck.
No other wrestler exemplified that more than West Holt’s Jake Judge.
Most, if not all, of the folks reading this have heard his story. In case you hadn’t, let me give you the Cliff Notes version. In the championship match of his district meet the week before state, Judge was accused of biting his opponent and was disqualified, subsequently disqualifying him from the state meet, despite finishing among the top four in his district. After an appeal from the West Holt administration and staff, Judge was graciously reinstated by the NSAA a few days later.
On Thursday, he hit the mat like a man possessed. He won his two bouts fairly easily. He looked to be poised to make a run at the finals until he ran into Cole Aschoff, who knocked Judge out of contention. Fortunately, he rebounded and finished third at 145 pounds.
I had the opportunity to talk to Jake afterward. The full conversation will be released in a story soon enough, but I don’t think I can do real justice to him and his outlook on the whole situation. I talk to young athletes on a regular basis and many of them are very gracious and humble kids. However, Judge absolutely blew me away.
Here was a young man who nearly had everything he worked for taken away from him in his senior year. He had every opportunity to be spiteful and bitter, especially after watching the same wrestler that he was disqualified against win the state championship. He could have joined in the loudest chorus of boos I have ever seen an individual high schooler receive in competition. He could have at least frowned.
Judge did none of those things. He was simply grateful for the opportunity he was given. He had a natural smile on his face before, during and after every match at state. He actually admitted to me that he really isn’t very good at not smiling. He made a point to compliment each of his opponents at the meet. He knew that each one of those kids had earned the right to be there, just as he had, through their hard work and dedication, and he appreciated that, no matter who came out on top.
He was a bit of a celebrity at the meet, as his story had clearly made it’s way across the state. Many people saw the video of the alleged biting incident on Facebook and formulated their opinion. He had folks cheering his name from all corners of the arena, many of whom he admitted he had never met before. That could have made his head swell a bit. However, he simply thought it was neat and admitted it was a bit strange.
The most incredible moment, however, came during the medal ceremony. Jake took the stand along with five other medalists. One of those wrestlers ended his chance for a state championship the day before. One nearly ended it a week before. At a time that many other wrestlers were posing for pictures with their new swag, Jake kept being Jake.
He applauded when the sixth-place finisher was given his medal. Then the fifth and fourth-place finishers. He took his medal with a smile. Then he applauded Aschoff when he got his runner-up medal. When the championship medal was given out - to the same wrestler who nearly ended his season a week too early - Judge didn’t change his attitude one bit. He smiled, clapped and then stepped off the stand and shook each competitor’s hand.
He didn’t hold a visible grudge. Despite all he had gone through that week - the highs and the lows - he stuck to his morals. He continued to be the humble, grateful young man he has been all season long. When many other wrestlers are understandably dealing with anger, sadness or pride, Judge stayed humble. He was an example of how young athletes should handle adversity.
Heck, he was an example of how many of us adults should handle adversity. He didn’t let it set him back, change his morals or grow spiteful. He stayed Jake. He was one of the truest champions of the meet.
Good for you, Jake.