A local woman with a Pan-Am Games past is looking to lead a wrestling rebirth in Chilliwack.
Jenna McLatchy, a gold medalist at the 2011 Junior Pan-Am Games in Brazil, has retired as a competitor and turned her sights to coaching.
She’s guiding a dedicated crew of youngsters at AD Rundle middle school.
“I miss competing,” said McLatchy, who last wrestled in April, winning bronze at the Canadian Senior National Championship in Edmonton. “So this gives me a little taste of it once in a while so I don’t completely miss it.”
Along with co-coaches Sarah Lee and Darren Williamson, McLatchy launched the AD Rundle wrestling around this time last year.
The surroundings are far more humble than anything she was accustomed to during four years with the Simon Fraser University team. While AD Rundle’s girls’ volleyball team works out in the gymnasium, the wrestlers occupy the stage.
She doesn’t mind and neither do they.
“We actually have a little thing going on where we’re better than them,” laughed Grade 9 student Alex Knezacek. “We actually did that in a cheer one time last year. ‘We’re better than the volleyball team. Go!’”
AD Rundle’s is the only program in Chilliwack.
They had 12-14 wrestlers last year and they’re above 16 this year.
“I was surprised at the interest last year because I remembered the sport not being that popular when I was in middle and high school,” McLatchy said. “The initial turnout was amazing and they told their friends and they came out too.”
“It just grew and grew and we’re very proud to be the only program in Chilliwack.”
Sardis secondary and Chilliwack secondary both had teams fade away within the last eight years.
“I know when I was in high school there was a lot of admin that didn’t support combat sports,” McLatchy theorized. “Paula (AD Rundle principal Gosal) has been great. As soon as Sarah suggested it, she was on board.”
“Mike (SFU wrestling coach Jones) donated the matts and helped us get into last year’s War on the Floor meet in Burnaby.”
When she was at SFU, McLatchy took every chance to run a coaching clinic, but this is her first chance running her own team.
“When I was at the level I was at, I was so caught up in competing that I forgot how much I love wrestling,” she said. “These kids remind me of that, and it’s almost more enjoyable coaching.”
“Mike Jones was always tough on me, but also supportive and I feel that’s also what I give to these kids. He used to say if he wasn’t yelling at you he didn’t care about you. You earn respect by being tough, but I’m also there to listen to what they have to say and be their friend if they need it.”
Knezacek said the coaches have done well to establish a culture of discipline and respect — while keeping things fun.”
“If you saw us in the beginning you’d have seen us just standing against the wall talking to each other,” he said. “You see us now and we’re standing in a half circle, looking her (McLatchy) straight in the eyes and saying, ‘Yes Ma’am.”
“They can be firm but they’re also really nice to us,” said another wrestler, Grade 9 student Julia McNeil. “They try their hardest to get us the best opportunities. They’re here on time. They do the workouts with us. They’re generally pretty great.”
The AD Rundle wrestlers made their dazzling debut at the War on the Floor, with seven of the 14 wrestlers medaling.
A good start for a program that McLatchy hopes will provide the opportunities she had growing up — and then some.
“My first two years of wrestling was at CSS, but I was going to SFU for summer and Christmas camps and I was going to a club in Abbotsford twice a week,” she said. “It was the outside camps that got me recognized by Mike, but my goal is to grow this to where people don’t have to go out of town to get wrestling.”
McNeil comes from a family that is big into contact sports, but she’s never been an active participant until now.
“My first experience was when Jenna came and did wrestling in our normal PE (phys-ed) classes,” McNeil said. “I feel a lot of kids our age don’t have the opportunity to do contact sports.”
“Jenna talks about her background a bit and it helps me to think, ‘Hey, she started here too and I could be where she is one day.”
The AD Rundle wrestlers are a tight-knit group, and they’ve inherited McLatchy’s competitive nature.
Knezacek and McNeil square off at nearly every practice.
“I usually win!” McNeil laughed.
“I didn’t have a lot of speed and she had stronger legs than me in the beginning,” Knezacek countered. “I’m a little stronger than her now, but she used to be able to pounce on me and gut-wrench me immediately.”
Knezacek and McNeil will graduate from middle school soon and hope to continue wrestling.
“We’ve been discussing this and all we need at our next school is a volunteer teacher to say they’ll run and support the team,” McNeil said. “From there we can take a bus back here to wrestle, or we can try to start something at the high school.”
“I feel I’d go to great lengths because I really enjoy this sport and it’s been such a big confidence booster.”
Knezacek, whose dad was big into wrestling and jiujitsu, is equally committed.
“The thing I like most about this team is how we all support each other, no matter what happens,” he said. “If someone falls there’s no laughing and no one disrespecting you.”
“I would love to go to CSS next year and find a support teacher to keep us going.”
The team is currently building towards a return to the War on the Floor later this month, and McLatchy hopes to get them into more events.
“At War on the Floor last year, we had a boy (Tyler) who wrestled against boys who’d been at this for years,” she said. “But he wrestled his little heart out and I was so proud of him.”
“A lot of our kids weren’t successful in their matches, but they came off the floor, win or lose, and they were proud of themselves for getting out there and doing it. That’s all I can ask for.”