Few people associate the brutality of wrestling with the eloquence of poetry. But folks at Fairview do things a little differently.
Head coach Jim Lefebvre and the Fairview High wrestling team have found a way to use poetry to motivate themselves on the mat. The Knights have chosen the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley as their rallying cry.
Published in 1875, the poem’s title is the Latin word for “unconquered” or “unconquerable.” From Lefebvre’s perspective as coach, the poem’s English author himself serves as a model of unyielding strength for the Knights to aspire to.
Henley had his left leg amputated below the knee at age 17 after suffering from tuberculosis of the bone from an early age. He struggled with illness and disease until he died at age 53.
Henley’s own desire to live happily in defiance of his crippling health inspired him to write “Invictus” from a hospital bed. Lefebvre introduced his wrestlers to the stirring poem in the hope that they may identify with Henley’s stoicism.
“Invictus was written by a guy who was sick his entire life,” Lefebvre said. “He said his head was bloodied but unbowed and yet he prevails in the end and never allows it to give him a bad attitude.”
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
— William Ernest Henley
“We’ve really embraced it this season,” Lefebvre said. “We do a preseason program called the Agoge and it’s based on what the Spartans did. They would rip the 10- and 12-year-olds out of their homes and make them stand in a field and hold up a shield.”
Training with shields and swords is far from acceptable practice in high school sports these days.
During the Knights’ two-week trial, the wrestlers push their own limits with maximum repetitions of such contemporary exercises as push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, more push-ups, more sit-ups, running, lifting, more push-ups, more sit-ups, and continue as long as they could. Whichever Knight performs the best during the trial is crowned the Agoge champion.
A triathlon awaited them as the finale this season. The Knights recited “Invictus” as a team before embarking toward the preseason pinnacle.
Modern wrestling’s roots reach back to Ancient Greece. So, it’s fitting the Knights have also chosen to adopt the Spartan attitude they’ve all seen and admire in the popular 2006 graphic novel adaptation “300.”
This year’s regimen and recitation left an impression on sophomore 132-pounder Cliff Lester.
“The Spartans would actually memorize poetry, too. This year, that (Invictus) was our poem for the Agoge,” Lester said. “So this year we memorized it as a team. It helped us all because we’re used to just working hard and just sort of hitting heads together. This was doing something more intellectual, calming and laid-back away from the super-aggressive sport.”
Harsh and dated as it seems, Lefebvre said the unyielding Spartan culture relates perfectly to prep wrestling.
In basketball, Lefebvre says, being a certain height can be an advantage. In football, being bigger than one’s opponent can provide leverage. In wrestling, a sport that matches opponents according to relative weight classes, Lefebvre believes success requires only toughness.
Combining grit with intellect, the Knights have created their own unique approach to inciting fervor and camaraderie, fitness and fortitude. Each wrestling team has a rugged mantra emblazoned on its warm-ups. The Knights’ gear displays the final two lines of Henley’s indomitable poem on the back:
“I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.”
Poetry and wrestling.
“You know what, it’s Fairview, man,” Lefebvre said. “We do a little bit of everything.”
Follow Brad on Twitter: @BradCochi