Vancouver "is a hotbed for wrestling," says Dave McKay.
A freestyle wrestler who competed at the L.A. and Seoul Summer Games, McKay is a former national team coach and is currently the director of high performance training for Team B.C. Assessing the young talent at the second annual Joker Slam Wednesday at John Oliver secondary, McKay said the sport's popularity is rising and well-coached programs in school and at sports clubs are attracting a surge of male and female teenagers.
"It's an area that is underdeveloped," he said of high school wrestling. "In the past we've had great history at Tupper and Britannia. We are seeing a resurgence of wrestling in the Vancouver area and so we need more people dedicated and willing to volunteer their time."
He said Chris Fuoco, the enthusiastic and devoted head coach at J.O., is an influential factor. Fuoco has helped put two Jokers on the provincial wrestling team (including Kyle Nguyen and 2011 Canadian juvenile champion Manpreet Virk) and invited Team Ontario athletes to wrestle at the high school this week for the second annual Slam. He also coached Rowena Cacapit, a 2010 graduate and Canadian Cadet champion and the first Joker to bring home a gold medal in 25 years.
"It's pretty exciting to watch these kids come up," said McKay. "There are good wrestlers everywhere-it's just bringing them out and giving them a taste of the sport."
Fuoco said his students' passion for the sport is contagious. The lunchhour Slam drew enough spectators to fill the stands and he said would-be wrestlers were asking if they could still join the team.
"They're walking into the gym without me putting up an announcement and their work ethic is 10 times better than anything I've ever seen. They see what Kyle and Manpreet and Juma [Nathani, 2011 Western Canadian champion, 130 kg class] and Torrey [Toribio, 2011 BC Wrestling school boy of the year] are doing and they work like dogs because they think that's the norm. Our kids that are on the mat, they understand they can get to that level."
All local wrestlers at the Joker Slam were from the host school-except for one. Richard Nghiem came from Gladstone and so impressed McKay and Simon Fraser development coach John Pineda that both scouts stood to watch him grapple. He was invited to practice with the university's development team. "He's a really solid kid," Pineda said of Nghiem. "I saw how raw he is and how gifted he is."
Ability is innate and technique can be taught, said Pineda. "No. 1, I look for a kid who is passionate," he said.
Added McKay, "What we see here are some really raw, talented kids. Kids with some athletic ability but also a fighting spirit. We can teach them how to wrestle, but spirit, aggressiveness and athleticism, that's innate."