As much as Jim Thompson loves coaching the sport of wrestling, he knew that one day he would have to step away from being South Whidbey’s head coach.
That day was Friday, Feb. 17 at the class 1A state championships in the Tacoma Dome.
Thompson, 71, retired after 12 years at the helm and nearly two decades with the program. His longtime assistant coach, Paul Newman, is also contemplating retirement. Thompson said his retirement was a long time coming.
“I feel really good about my decision,” said Thompson, who was twice named Cascade Conference coach of the year in 2006 and 2017. “I’ve wanted to step away the last few years, but something just gets me back into it. I love it. It’s not been an easy decision. But I think it’s time to turn it over. I’d like to see a younger group of coaches take over.”
Thompson and Newman helped send 25 wrestlers to the state tournament over the years, where 10 earned medals by placing in the top-eight. Two of those 25 included this year’s state competitors in seniors Chase Barthlett and Hunter Newman, who is Paul Newman’s son. The Falcons also placed second in the Cascade Conference as a team seven times, including three consecutive runner-up finishes from 2005 to 2008.
Thompson saw one wrestler win a state championship when Ben Harris captured the class 2A 171-pound title in 2004; Thompson was an assistant coach to head coach Wes Helseth at the time.
Thompson, who was an honorable mention all-American wrestler at the University of Wisconsin-Superior in the mid-1960s, joined the coaching staff in his 50s as a way of getting back into the sport he had fallen in love with as a teenager. What he found were a group of dedicated athletes determined to make the most out of the tough sport where discipline and mental toughness are essentially prerequisites to competing.
He’s seen all types of teenagers step into the mat room, from great athletes to the not-so-talented. One thing, however, has connected them all.
“The one thing I can say honestly that every kid, for the most part, has had a huge heart,” Thompson said. “There’s no other sport that you go out there and put yourself out there. You’re going out in the center of the mat by yourself to either succeed or fail.”
It was through these experiences in the mat room, dual matches and at tournaments where Thompson developed a strong connection with his athletes. They in turn looked to him as a father figure.
“He took young men and tried to help them become true men,” said former Falcon wrestler Avery Buechner, an assistant coach at Sutter High School in Sutter, Calif. “He’s a huge influence as to why I’m coaching right now. He made wrestling fun in his own way. The hard work aside, he was a great mentor and he exemplified somebody you wanted to be like.”
It wasn’t wins that Thompson demanded of his wrestlers — it was their effort.
“If you gave it your all, he gave it his all,” said Aaron Mannie, a two-time state competitor for the Falcons in 2007 and 2008.
Thompson said he’ll miss the bond that grows during a season through hard work, and strengthens during the highs and lows of a wrestling season.
“There’s so much more emotion in wrestling than any other sport,” Thompson said. “You cry with the kids, you laugh with the kids. You have victories with the kids and defeats. You wrestle every match with them. You’ve been there yourself.”
“I just don’t think there’s any sport like it. The closeness you get with the kids you coach, I don’t think it happens in any other sport. We’re together so much,” he added.
He won’t, however, miss the long and grueling days associated with tournaments. Thompson said a typical Saturday during wrestling season could last up to 16 hours. The emotional baggage that came with each athlete’s successes or failures at tournaments was also something that could weigh heavily on his shoulders.
“There’s a lot of stress involved in coaching wrestling,” Thompson said. “When you’re sitting in the coach’s chair, you’re coaching every move they’re making out there. You’re trying to see what the next best move is and they’re supposed to do.”
His presence will be missed by sophomore wrestler Aryeh Rohde.
“In the 11 years I have played sports I have had many coaches, but the past two years with coach Thompson have been a life changer,” Rohde said. “Never have I had a coach like him. He inspired me like no other and pushed me to be the best I can be while caring for me like no other at the same time.”
Thompson is hopeful that a youth wrestling program run by Smokey McClure will catch momentum and draw more athletes to the sport at an earlier age. Thompson also won’t be far from the sport following his retirement, as he plans to don referee gear and officiate at middle school and high school wrestling matches.