By Dan Plouffe
Maria Castillo didn’t become a wrestler because she’d watched it at the Olympics or knew someone involved in the sport. Her introduction couldn’t have been more innocent. While she was eating lunch with friends, her school team’s coach came over and encouraged them to try wrestling.
“I never really did anything too physical. I was not really in athletics until this season,” highlights Castillo, a Grade 10 Lester B. Pearson Catholic High School student whose sports career had only ever included a bit of middle school volleyball before she took to the mats.
“But the coaches were so nice and engaging. The coaches and teammates really made me want to do it. There are a lot of people supporting you.
“And the sport itself, I found that I liked it because it was more competitive and you could actually, like, fight with people. It was very different from the previous ones I did.”
Hardly two months into her new sports journey, Castillo earned her way to the March 7-8 OFSAA Wrestling Championships, which brought together over 750 high school athletes from across the province at TD Place Arena.
“I didn’t expect to be here,” Castillo signals. “It was kind of unexpected since I’d joined the team after the season had already started. I was just starting to see how it works and to learn the moves and everything in such a limited period of time.
“The coaches, they knew that I didn’t have that much experience and they always told me to have fun. You might not make it, but that’s okay, as long as you learn, it’s good experience, and next year, you will always have the chance.”
Castillo wound up being one of seven local athletes to record top-6 placements at the provincials, finishing sixth out of 13 in the girls’ 89-kilogram competition.
“It was nerve-racking,” she recounts. “I didn’t expect it to be in a place like TD, I thought it’d be another school because that’s where all the other competitions were.
“I didn’t expect it to be this big, but my coaches were telling me that there might possibly be university scouts there, and that’s when it hit me that, wow, this is a pretty big thing.
“It’s been a very interesting experience. I’ve learned a lot from these matches. You can pick up a lot of techniques.”
Ottawa’s OFSAA adds more girls’ divisions
Castillo competed in a new weight category that wasn’t previously offered at OFSAA, or in many other events period. Organizers pushed to have an equal number of boys’ and girls’ divisions (17), for the first time this year. Three of the additions came at the top of the girls’ categories – 89, 95 and over-115 kg. In all, 46% of participants at OFSAA wrestling were female.
“It really helps level the playing field and provide opportunities now that the girls didn’t have in the past,” notes Jason Kirby, a co-convenor of the tournament alongside Cairine Wilson Secondary School colleague Guy MacDougall. “We’re super excited and proud to be able to give those girls the opportunity to compete in a great sport.”
MacDougall likewise feels “overjoyed” to have the new weight classes and “to see the energy from those athletes in particular.”
“It [was] International Women’s Day [yesterday] and we’re having our finals and we’re celebrating all these wonderful young athletes coming in for the first time,” he indicates. “The girls are definitely showing: ‘Yeah, we want to compete.’
“Maybe we need to be questioning what we’ve been doing as past practice more often.”
In the Olympics, the maximum weight for female wrestlers is 76 kg (167 lbs.) The high school provincials offered six categories over that limit, and there were 95 participants in those divisions – more than one-quarter of the total girls’ entries.
“We feed the next level, so hopefully, by us making the first step and providing proof-of-concept, maybe that will lead (others) to make that change,” MacDougall adds.
‘Great experience for kids to be involved in sport’
With athletes divided into 17 weight classes, wrestling already welcomes a variety of participants whose attributes may not be well-suited to some other sports. On the mats, they’re guaranteed to face someone of similar size.
“There’s an opportunity for kids that maybe don’t fit in the mould of playing on a sports team,” MacDougall explains. “And because we do have such a wide range of weight classes, there’s no need to cut anyone.”
Having OFSAA in Ottawa also allowed many students to be involved in other ways as well, he adds. There were learning opportunities for groups in charge of livestreaming, food preparation, photos, and sports recreation management.
The event was held at a “premier venue” for wrestling, MacDougall outlines – a “one-stop-shop” with all the restaurants and attractions around Lansdowne. And it was a particularly special trip for student-athletes from the farther corners of Ontario to get to visit the nation’s capital.
“A lot of kids, during the pandemic especially, they haven’t traveled, so it’s a really rich experience from that perspective too,” he notes. “It’s been a great experience and event for kids just to be involved in sport.”
Bronze bounty for local grapplers
Local wrestlers earned three bronze medals at this year’s OFSAA, and one of those came in the lone new division added to the boys’ side. Grade 9 Cairine Wilson Secondary School student Taye Varden earned a 3rd-place finish in the boys’ 38 kg category.
“I cried at first, because I was so happy,” Varden says of the moment he won his medal. “Oh my gosh, I just did it. I made my family proud.”
Varden’s grandparents and his dad (a teacher/coach at neighbouring Sir Wilfrid Laurier Secondary School) were there supporting him at TD Place. His sister Caiya, a 2019 participant at OFSAA wrestling in Ottawa, was watching on from Halifax where she’s studying at university.
“I got into wrestling because my sister kind of forced me,” smiles Varden, who’s also played hockey, basketball, baseball, soccer and swimming. “But once I saw my first wrestling match, I was in the stands watching, I was like, ‘I need to do this.’
“I like everything about it. I like how you can take out your anger in it, and have fun and do the best you can.”
Varden’s Cairine Wilson Wildcats teammate and fellow Grade 9 student Sheishan Reginald also posted a top-6 result, placing 5th in the boys’ 41 kg event.
“It’s a wonderful team. We all get along with each other and we all try to teach each other,” Reginald reports. “There’s a large amount of people here cheering me on. My friends were here, a lot of them, in the stands. They were tapping on the glass big-time.”
Pathway wrestler inspired by deceased coach
Mitch Valius Cowan felt spiritual support behind him, even if he was missing his coach’s physical presence.
A co-founder of Pathway Jiujitsu alongside his brother Ryan, Cowan’s former coach Tim Hickey died this past fall at age 28 after a lengthy mental illness, says his obituary.
“I’d known him for 12 years. It was pretty sad,” shares Cowan, who struggles to speak about the loss of Hickey, but wants to underline the impact he had. “After that, I just kept thinking about him and thinking about him and thinking about him. I have to win for him, I have to win for him, I have to win for him.”
Cowan’s motivation backfired initially – he was quickly knocked out of five tournaments in a row.
“I was honestly questioning if I should continue wrestling or find something else,” Cowan recalls. “But if he was still alive, he would look at me and say, ‘Mitch. I don’t want you to quit wrestling.’ That’s my motivation to keep going.”
Cowan eventually reframed his thinking and came to understand that Hickey would want him to continue enjoying the sport more than anything else. Cowan loved talking with his opponents at OFSAA before and after their matches. He wound up finishing 4th in the boys’ 64 kg division filled with 32 competitors.
“I started to wrestle not to win but to have fun more, and then I actually started winning a lot,” explains the Grade 11 Sir Robert Borden High School student. “I wish I did a little bit better (at OFSAA), but I’ve still got next year and I still had a pretty good time. I’m just very happy to be here.”
Another Pathway wrestler was among the trio of local bronze medallists. Renfrew’s Ariel Gibbons, who trains with the Stittsville club, took 3rd in the girls’ 54 kg event, while St. Francis Xavier Catholic High School student Mary Ofili also earned bronze in the 115 kg+ class.
Titus Diceman of St. Mother Teresa rounded up the local top-6 performers with his 6th place result in boys’ 83 kg.
With the 2023 Canadian Wrestling Championships starting today and running through Sunday in Waterloo, OFSAA was missing a bunch of its youth wrestling star power, though a handful did seize the opportunity to compete in both back-to-back.
“It was a little bit unfortunate, the timing of it,” MacDougall signals. “But if they chose not to come because of the [nationals], it just creates another spot, so I love that.”
HELP SHINE A LIGHT ON LOCAL SPORT! The Ottawa Sports Pages has proudly provided a voice for local sport for over 10 years, but we need your help to continue another 10 and beyond. Please donate to the Ottawa Sports Pages Fund today.