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Teacher builds wrestling program from scratch

Kelsey Martirano
Teacher builds wrestling program from scratch
Boston Latin Academy teacher Jose Valenzuela (back, center) and members of the high school’s wrestling team. COURTESY PHOTO

When José Valenzuela started teaching history at Boston Latin Academy nine years ago, there was not a single person on the wrestling team. In fact, the exam school did not even have a wrestling team.

Now BLA’s wrestling program is booming with players — 60 in total — thanks to Valenzuela’s efforts.

In fact, Valenzuela has been credited for singlehandedly transforming the non-existent program into a qualifier at the state tournament, and he’s not stopping there. In February, all of the young women on the mixed-gender wrestling team qualified for the tournament. A majority of the young men competed as well.

Valenzuela started the program with only 10 members in 2017 and merged with the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in order to compete. Now the two teams evenly split the total number of wrestlers.

“I think we’ve made a lot of progress in a short amount of time, in part because the kids have bought in so much and are really motivated to pursue this. It’s not an easy sport,” said Valenzuela. “So every day they come, I have a lot of respect for them.”

Valenzuela acts not only as a coach, but also as a motivator on the mat.

“He’s a really good person, good coach. He really sets the expectations in the room,” said Michael Tavares, who joined the team in the seventh grade and eventually became the team’s captain.

Tavares started out inexperienced, unathletic and shy. He credits Valenzuela’s ability to recruit and coach as critical components of the team’s success. The coach remains supportive, he says, even when they lose a match.

“[He isn’t] telling you ‘Oh, you could’ve done… better.’ It’s, ‘Hey, you lost your match, keep your head up,’” Tavares said of Valenzuela.

Valenzuela, who grew up in Jamaica Plain, credits the sport for many of his own successes. He began wrestling in sixth grade at Boston Latin School, which had the city’s only wrestling program for public school students at the time. He went on to wrestle for four years at Williams College in Massachusetts.

Valenzuela attributes his growth in self-discipline, confidence and school grades to wrestling. These, he believes, are lessons for a younger generation. Valenzuela says students could benefit from the sport the way he has. So his work begins with one student at a time.

“I can take someone who’s never done a cartwheel, I can take someone who has never run a mile, I can take anybody, and I can transform them [into a wrestler],” said Valenzuela.

In addition to being a high school coach, Valenzuela also prioritizes inclusivity at a nonprofit he co-founded, Beat the Streets New England, which uses wrestling to educate and empower young people in Boston and Providence.

Valenzuela said that over time, he has seen a shift in the mindset about the program in Boston.

“It’s no longer a sport that people are ignoring,’’ he said, “and more a sport that people are starting to recognize is a really viable option for kids, but also one that we can do really well.”

Still, the wrestling program is bracing for change, as the O’Bryant team separates itself and now searches for a coach of its own. Valenzuela acknowledges that the BLA-O’Bryant team did get rather big, but he welcomes the fact that O’Bryant will be able to branch out on its own this fall. He says the team’s future is “really exciting.”

For the rest of this season, Valenzuela plans to continue recruiting new members at BLA while maintaining focus on his current students.

“This is a sport with a lot of potential,” said Valenzuela. “The most difficult and challenging thing is getting people to kind of see the vision.”