When 9-year-old Charlie is asked what he likes most about wrestling, he says, “slamming people down.”
That may sound like the response of a kid who is brash and aggressive. But he and the family who surround him in the bleachers of the crowded gym smile and laugh. And Charlie is comfortable sitting on the lap of his foster grandmother. And he shows good sportsmanship in shaking his opponents’ hands after matches at the wrestling tournament Sunday morning at Parkway South High School.
The third grader has not always been in a nurturing environment. A couple years ago, it was toxic, his foster mom says. But wreSTL, a nonprofit youth wrestling club, has “transformed the way” Charlie and his younger brother, Chris, 7, “see themselves and given them some really healthy relationships and outlets for their energy,” she said.
That’s the sort of outcome that wreSTL director and coach Sara Levin tries to produce. About three years ago, she and a group of St. Louisans who were passionate about the sport launched wreSTL with the goal of getting more kids to don singlets and head gear.
While wrestling is not the most popular youth sport and Levin, a Jewish woman, is not the typical wrestling coach, she has managed to increase the sport’s presence in St. Louis. She’s also helped kids like Charlie and Chris grapple with challenges off the mat. (The Jewish Light agreed not to use their real names.)
“It is the single most rewarding thing I have ever done in my life,” said Levin, 44, who runs the club in Soulard. “I have never experienced this type of pure joy and excitement for someone else’s success.”
She first became connected to the sport as a volunteer with the team at Parkway North High School. Meanwhile, she was a member of the National Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) chapter at Congregation Shaare Emeth, which she said inspired her on her “only mission, to make a positive difference.”
She then managed the squad at Indiana University and earned a degree in Sports Marketing and Management. She couldn’t find a job at the college level in wrestling, so she moved to Phoenix to run an international wrestling tournament and then to Colorado to work for USA Wrestling, a governing body for the sport.
Levin developed relationships with wrestlers like Randy Couture who later became a star in Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and now is a chair of the wreSTL board.
“I respect the sport because it’s really the only sport I know that is both an individual sport and a team sport. You can’t really get better or practice without a team, but when it comes to performance it’s just you out there, facing down someone else,” said Levin, who also works in corporate responsibility at Anheuser-Busch InBev and as a photographer.
Levin is somewhat on her own as a woman in a predominantly male sport. There is only one female wrestler with her club, but progress has been made since she first became involved. The Olympics added a women’s division in 2004, and last year, Missouri added a women’s division at the high school level, too.
Wrestling with self-esteem
Maria Casaleggi became a foster parent about four years ago because she was tired of her work as an elementary school teacher “being undone when kids go home to really hard situations.”
She welcomed Charlie and Chris into her home more than a year ago and is raising them with the help of her parents.
She did not share specifics about their previous home life but said they went through a lot of trauma.
A friend noticed the boys doing pushups at church and suggested that they give wrestling a shot. Then Casaleggi saw the wreSTL booth at a family activity fair and started talking with organizers.
Soon after, the boys started wrestling.
“Charlie has just a lot of natural athletic ability and seems to be a good fit, and Chris just loves being part of the team,” said Casaleggi, 32.
The coaches teach them about the importance of healthy eating and exercise and assign them chores at the gym in addition to practice two nights each week, she said.
Levin and other coaches “demand excellence while also being really kind,” said Casaleggi, who sat among six family members. Charlie previously had “a lot of negative views about himself, things that people had told him, that he was stupid, that he was bad… and he doesn’t say those things anymore, he doesn’t want to hurt himself anymore. He sees his value, he speaks kind words about himself….and I think wrestling has been an important part of that.”
During Charlie’s first match Sunday, Levin and another coach crouched in the corner of the mat and shouted encouragement and directions: “Break down!” “Keep charging forward!” and “Look up! Good job!”
After three one-minute periods, Charlie had scored more points and won. He ultimately finished in second place in his age division.
He said he wants to improve in opposing wrestlers who have long arms. The key to his success, he said, is “listening to my coaches.”
When Levin and others first launched wreSTL, there were about 10 kids participating; there are now 20, and the organization hopes to double that next year, said Levin, who was recently inducted into the Midlands Championships Hall of Fame, an honor connected to a premier wrestling tournament.
Linnae Thomas also has a son, Landon, who received “emotional and verbal abuse” from a stepfather, who they have since left, she said. She first met Levin when the coach adopted a rescue puppy from her. (The wrestlers wear shirts that say “BE BIG ON THE INSIDE” with an image of the dog, Scout, that Levin adopted.) Thomas started following her on social media, saw her work with wreSTL and decided to enroll Landon.
She said Levin has “broken through years of turmoil with Landon, and I will forever be grateful.”
While stories from children like Chris, Charlie and Landon stand out, Levin said that they are not representative of all the wrestlers in the program.
Still, she said, “it’s our belief at wreSTL that all kids are at-risk kids. Every child is at risk of obesity, at risk of being alienated, at risk of being bullied, at risk of being a bully, and every kid needs good role models and good mentorship, no matter what their situation is.”