Team sports like basketball and football fill stadiums across the nation. But in Iowa, one sport reigns supreme: wrestling

Words by Tucker Jacob
Audio by Mason Mauro and Austin Garner

All eyes are on the mats. The voices of screaming fans, cheerleaders and coaches fill the air. An overwhelming atmosphere on the arena floor captivates the attention of thousands.

It’s a cacophony of sound—and it’s not surprising at all. Fans from all over the state travel in packs to support not just a team, but individual athletes. Coaches from both sides fire instructions at their wrestlers. Cheerleaders pound their fists into the mat and chant their school’s fight song. And the actual wrestling: quick and intense. With every move the crowd responds victoriously.

Wrestling is one of America’s niche sports—more popular in some regions than others. Football and basketball dominate national headlines and airwaves, but in the state of Iowa, wrestling reigns.

The passion for wrestling blankets the state from river to river. The high-school season culminates with the state wrestling tournament at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines on the second-to-last weekend of February.

The wrestlers are capable of pulling enough people to fill the 17,000-seat arena. Crowds this large are normal for an NCAA tournament basketball game but seem unheard of for a one-on-one amateur competition. So why the big deal?

“It’s like a family thing—everybody’s together,” says Gary Steffen, an assistant wrestling coach at Crestwood High School in Cresco, Iowa. “You get those same kids, the dads and their kids and then when they grow up they have their kids. It just keeps going. It’s a culture in Iowa.”

Entire generations are represented—from grandparents who competed to parents watching their own children grapple. “I wasn’t very good at it,” says Greg Ervin, who watches his nephew wrestle for Pleasant Valley High School. “He’s had some broken bones, a meniscus tear. He’s tough.”

That toughness extends to the collegiate level. The University of Iowa and Iowa State University have two of the most successful NCAA wrestling programs in the nation, holding a combined total of 31 national championships.

“It’s just a tradition, being such a big deal here,” says Humboldt High School wrestler Joey Busse.

Just like corn or caucuses, wrestling is an Iowa mainstay—one that requires an intense level of mental strength.

“We want to be out there,” Busse says. “You hurt your ankle, you hurt your hand—you’re going finish out that match. Basketball players, people like that, they might sit out for a little bit, but in wrestling there are no timeouts. There’s no sitting out. You’ve got to go out and finish the match.”

That toughness even shows up before the match when some wrestlers repeatedly hit themselves in the head to get their adrenaline going. On the mat, focus and determination are clearly written on the faces of the young athletes as they prepare for competition.

The match begins, moves are made, and electric excitement fills the air. “It’s incredible every year,” says Kyle Norris, athletic trainer at Iowa Lakes Community College. ”It’s full all the way around, the traffic, the parking. It’s just insane.”

Finally, a pin, followed by tears of frustration and those of joy. It’s a thin line between the two—made thinner by the passion within Iowa’s trademark sport.