There’s no secret the amount of work a wrestler puts in during the season, and offseason, to earn a shot to wrestle for a state championship on the Tacoma Dome floor come mid-February.
Nooksack Valley senior Taylor Gardner’s wrestling passion runs deep. He became infatuated with the sport when he first began in seventh grade.
Gardner reached the Mat Classic his freshman year before going 1-2, falling one win short of reaching the medal rounds. His sophomore year ended the same way.
Last year Gardner, wrestling in the 138-pound weight class, seemed poised for a breakthrough. He finished second at the 1A Regional Tournament and scored a 16-0 technical fall in the state tournament’s first round.
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But during his quarterfinal match, his state run came to a screeching halt after his opponent falsely accused him of biting.
Gardner was disqualified from the match and the tournament before Pioneers coach Chad Parson petitioned the call with tournament officials and got Gardner reinstated, essentially admitting they got the decision wrong in the first place.
“At first it was very hard to handle,” Parson said of Gardner’s mind state at the time. “Psychologically, it was very hard to deal with something like that and turn around and win his next match. That’s when he took that second loss, and he was out.”
Just like that, for the third straight year a medal evaded Gardner’s grasp. It seemed all of Gardner’s hard work, including his dedication to running cross country during the fall to prepare for wrestling, had evaporated.
“I’ve been one match away from medaling for three years, and I’m ready to be on the podium,” Gardner said in a phone interview. “I feel like I’ve put in the work, but you never really know until the time comes.”
And even through dealing with what was a raw deal last year, one silver lining prevailed — the fact Gardner gets one more shot this season.
“It was so very unfortunate and unfair,” Parson said, “but it’s my belief that when something is taken from you that’s so important to an individual, he will put that much more into it to be able to capture that, and nothing can stop him.”
And Gardner has used the incident as source of inspiration during the offseason.
Instead of running cross country this season, he dedicated himself to weight training and put on nearly 30 pounds of muscle, said Gardner, who’ll be wrestling around 170 this winter. And when he begins tiring or feeling weak, that moment of when he got cheated out of competing last year gets conjured up.
“Whenever I’m working out, that moment will pop into my mind,” Gardner said.
But Gardner is moving on and ready to focus on a strong senior season, using his newly developed strength combined with his trademark technical style.
Few wrestlers in the Northwest Conference are as mentally zeroed in during a match as Gardner. In fact, Parson, who called Gardner a technician, said he can almost see his senior thinking during a match.
“I would say wrestling is a sport more comparable to chess than football, because it’s all about thinking ahead,” Gardner said, “back-to-back moves, chain wrestling. It’s not like memorizing moves, but feeling when moves are available and not forcing things.”
Parson began coaching Gardner in middle school, and each year the Nooksack Valley coach said he’s seen progression in Gardner’s ability. Parson credit his senior’s maturation to his intelligence and overall coachability.
Gardner couldn’t peg a particular reason for his mental strength on the wrestling mat, stating most strong wrestlers begin long before he started.
“I feel like I’ve just devoted myself to the sport, and if I am passionate about it, if you enjoy something, it’s easier to do.”
With a young Nooksack Valley team it’s uncertain how many wrestlers will advance to state, but Gardner is planning on being there, and not just for a one-day stay.