Malcolm Gendall had a surprise guest visit him in his classroom at Earl Marriott Secondary earlier this year.
A few days prior to the arrival, Malcolm competed with the rest of the Mariners wrestling team at a meet in Abbotsford with mixed results. He won one match, but hurt his knee in next pairing and left the tournament early.
Now he watched as the Earl Marriott wrestling coach, Tom Willman, walked into the classroom and, after a quick chat with the teacher, addressed the students. It turns out the coach was a bearer of good news, announcing to the assembled Grade 8s that Malcolm had won a bronze medal at the meet. He then presented the medal to Malcolm as the rest of his classmates cheered appreciatively.
"They gave it to me at school," Malcolm says, his voice still betraying his amazement. "My coach came to my classroom and gave me the medal. I was so happy and everyone was taking my picture."
Willman proudly took in the scene and says the medal was a fitting reward for the teen's dedication to the sport.
"I could see him slowly improving as the year went on," Willman says. "He's a first year wrestler so for him to win a medal in his first year is a big accomplishment. And that's despite the challenges he faces as well.
"He was so excited and I was very pleased for him too because he worked hard for it. It was nice to see him get rewarded for all the hard work he put in at practise and the other tournaments he competed in."
For Malcolm, the medal meant much more than just a third-place finish. Born with Down's syndrome, Malcolm has never let the condition get in the way of his love of sports. Rather than sit passively on the sidelines watching others play and compete, the 13-year-old is always willing to give a new sport a try.
Malcolm's parents, Ian and Janet, have always encouraged him to be active. He started swatting tennis balls in the family garage at the age of two when the racquets were almost as big a he was. He quickly developed a knack for the game and since expanded his range of racquet sports to include squash and badminton.
"There has to be a link between hand-eye co-ordination and brain activity," Janet says. "So playing sports has to help him both with his motor skills and his brain activity."
Ian adds, "He's very fortunate that he has the motor skills and the personality to be able to participate in sports. He just puts himself in there and says, 'Here I am; I'm going to do it.'"
Originally from South Africa, the Gendall family lived in Peru until Malcolm reached the age of five, whereupon they relocated to Canada. Schools in South America were not welcoming for students with Down's syndrome and sports organizations were even less so.
Once he got to Canada, the athletic doors opened for Malcolm. In addition to playing tennis and squash with family members, Malcolm tried his hand at rugby, volleyball and basketball while in elementary school.
"When he was in Grade 7, he decided he wanted to run cross-country and he got a ribbon for being the last finisher," Janet says with a giggle. "The most important thing is he finished it and someone stayed with him to make sure he was all right. People were so nice; it was just amazing."
Last fall Malcolm moved into Grade 8 and made the requisite switch to Earl Marriott. When Willman was recruiting in the hallways for potential wrestlers, Malcolm was quick to volunteer.
"I had no problems with him joining the team at all," Willman says. "He asked me if he could wrestle and I said, 'Absolutely Malcolm; you're in.' I won't say no to anybody who wants to wrestle and compete. If a kid wants to commit the time, I don't mind spending my time helping him."
Wrestling as a Grade 8 may be the perfect fit for a teen with Down's syndrome looking for a team environment. One of the traits of the condition is a pronounced lack of upper body strength, but in grades 8 and 9, most of the boys he competes against aren't overly muscular yet.
"With the way the sport is set up, kids always wrestle other kids who are the same size as them and the same weight and, in a lot of cases, the same strength," Willman says. "The only real advantage someone might have is if they are a second-or third-year wrestler. Someone like that obviously has a lot more technique, experience and knowledge of the sport. In Malcolm's case, he picked up some of the techniques I showed him and he ran with it."
Of course it wasn't always easy. Malcolm struggled at first because he reflexively would roll onto his back whenever he ran into trouble. That might be a good strategy when you have to pass a ball off to a teammate, but in wrestling where the goal is to pin your opponent's shoulders to the mat, it was a habit that had to be curtailed. Within a couple of practises Malcolm began to grasp the objectives of the sport and started trying out his newly-learned techniques.
"I like wrestling and I try to do my best, but I struggle with my takedowns," Malcolm says. "I like to use the hip toss even though I have to do it better. I try to use it, but it doesn't always work. I like competing against other wrestlers and I love the takedowns."
Willman says that when Malcolm has found himself on the mat against a much more experienced wrestler, other coaches and opponents have shown considerable class and respect for Malcolm's limitations.
"Some of the more advanced wrestlers he competed against didn't go out there and try to destroy him," he says. "They actually let him compete as they worked on their moves against him. The coaches could tell their kids were obviously more advanced than Malcolm and they made sure their wrestlers worked on their technique instead of trying to crush him."
After winning his medal in Abbotsford, Malcolm wrapped up his first season on the mats by finishing fifth out of six competitors in his weight class at the Surrey Slamfest city championship meet.
With wrestling season now complete, Malcolm has turned his attention back to tennis, squash and the occasional game of golf on local par-3 circuits.
He's not done with wrestling, however, and plans to give it another try when practise resumes again in the fall.
"It's fun to be part of a team," he says. "I had a lot of fun and I want to try it again next year.
"If anyone wants to do wrestling they should try it. Do your best and try to win."
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