Pinned down for my final challenge

Milford Mercury: ON THE MAT: Pictured before hand with members of the Welsh squad, coach Arash Shojaei, Head of Performance Alan Jones, and Chairman Sue Jones (centre back). ON THE MAT: Pictured before hand with members of the Welsh squad, coach Arash Shojaei, Head of Performance Alan Jones, and Chairman Sue Jones (centre back).

AND then there was one.

After 16 weeks of Commonwealth Games challenges, taking me from the local leisure centre to the Vale of Glamorgan, it was time to try my hand at arguably the most daunting of the lot.

Namely, a session with the Welsh Amateur Wrestling Squad at their training base in Sophia Gardens, Cardiff.

Now, to my generation, the term ‘wrestling’ immiediately triggers childhood memories of mimicking the likes of Hulk Hogan and the Undertaker.

This form of the sport however, is not dramatised, is not choreographed, and is certainly not fake.

And it’s a sport that is slowly rising to prominence in Wales, thanks in main to Alan and Sue Jones.

Alan is the Welsh Amateur Wrestling Association’s Head of Performance, and has been instrumental in building a team for the Games in Glasgow.

Wife Sue meanwhile, serves as Chairman.

“It’s been a big thing for me to get wrestling in Wales,” said Alan, who can boast more than 45 years experience in the sport.

“There is talent out there but it needs bringing out.

“And people from other sports don’t realise how beneficial the training can be. I’ve done sessions with rugby league teams before and I know the All Blacks have used it as well.”

Indeed, Alan readily admits that wrestling, despite its historical significance, struggles to get the exposure it deserves.

One way of rectifying that in Wales would be a successful Commonwealth Games, with the squad of Thomas Hawthorn, Craig Pilling, Damion Arzu, Oliver Cole and Sarah Connolly all harbouring hopes of returning from Scotland with a medal.

“We want them to get on the podium and with good draws there is no reason why they can’t,” added Alan.

“And that would help us build towards taking a bigger squad to Australia in 2018.”

They will be assisted by Arash Shojaei, an Iranian who has turned his hand to coaching after injury curtailed his own competitive career.

“Wrestling is a very tough sport, both physically and mentally,” he warned, as I tentatively warmed up.

“You have to be strong and powerful, but also quick and agile.

“All the time you are thinking and trying not to get caught. It can be a game of chess at times and you have to react to what your opponent is doing.”

And like Alan, he bemoaned the lack of understanding that leads outsiders to dismiss the sport.

“Wrestlers train as hard as any other athletes but that is not always recognised,” he said.

“I’d like people to realise just how hard we work and compete.”

Through gritted teeth, I asked Arash whether it was frustrating that the majority automatically associate wrestling with the WWE in America.

“That is the most annoying thing for an amateur wrestler,” he said, without hesitation.

“We are one of the oldest and most historical sports but that gets overlooked.”

On that note, I decided against opening up a discussion on the former Iranian WWE star, The Iron Sheikh, and prepared to join the squad for what promised to be a testing 90 minutes.

We were joined by the Malta squad, who work in partnership with the Welsh, and members of the national junior squad.

I was to be paired with Oli Cole, who in April, won bronze in the 86-96kg category at the British Closed Wrestling Championships.

The word ‘mismatch’ sprung to mind - especially when Oli explained the squad were currently training twice a day, with sessions incorporating speed and power work, strength and conditioning, cardio, weightlifting, plyometrics, and circuits.

And sure enough, the early exercises brought a whole new meaning to the term ‘warm up.’

After dynamic stretching, I struggled through a series of technical drills, some of which exerted so much pressure on my neck that I still felt the repercussions three days later.

That brought us on to speed and power work, including a variety of short sprints and leg exercises. Noticeably, all involved, irrespective of their weight category, worked at a ferocious pace.

And it was a pace that duly exposed me when we moved on a 20-metre burst of forward flic flacs, where my efforts to keep up provided little in the way of aesthetic grace.

But despite early signs of dizziness and fatigue, I knew that business was about to pick up as Oli took me aside for a one on one tutorial.

He worked on my stance, grip, and body position, before taking me through the single leg and double leg sweep manoeuvres.

Needless to say, as things got more complex, the ease with which Oli was able to throw me around was frightening. So much so, that when a greatly amused Bill Carne asked him to hold me in a precarious position for a photograph, he nonchalantly did so.

But his advice was clear and insightful, especially when I attempted an ambitious ‘bear hug’ without properly interlocking my hands – a rookie mistake that Oli explained could lead to a broken thumb in a competitive bout.

And the final part of the session proved an intriguing one, as I learnt the art of a three second pin fall.

Predictably, I was powerless to prevent my shoulders being pinned on the mat, and when I had a go at pinning Oli down, he advised me to drive my head into his chest for leverage.

I did so, and felt like I was banging my head into a steel wall.

And noticeably, Oli used his neck to propel himself out of holds – justifying the intense work undertaken on that body part in the warm up.

“You did well,” Oli kindly told me afterwards.

“It’s a tough sport, and until people take part they don’t realise just how tough.”

He’s not wrong, and my own crash course had been as educational and exhilarating as it had exhausting.

Indeed, I don’t exaggerate when I say the athletes I worked alongside in Sophia Gardens were amongst the fittest and most powerful I had ever come across.

And for those who still wish to dismiss the sport as irrelevant, and lazily associate it with the scripted WWE brand, I say this.

Spend 90 minutes on the mat with Oli Cole, and then come back and tell me wrestling is fake.

Bill Carne’s verdict:

It was appropriate that wrestling was our final Commonwealth Games Challenge, because in some ways it was the most challenging for Fraser, whilst from my perspective it was the only sport I knew nothing about.

To be fair, I wasn't looking forward to it with relish, because I had to be up at 6am so we could drive to the National Centre of Excellence in Cardiff to meet with the Welsh Amateur Wrestling team, Head of Performance Alan Jones, his wife Sue and coach Arash Shojaei.

Alash hails from Iran, where wrestling is a national sport, and he is charged with putting the squad through their paces, building up their strength, fitness and skills

Most of the wrestlers come from a martial arts background, having been roped in by 67-year-old Alan, a real character. He hails from Lancashire, and he and Sue drive down from their home near Machynlleth for the coaching in Cardiff.

As Fraser joined the wrestlers on the dojo and I could see he was apprehensive. On the way up we had discussed Hulk Hogan, the Ultimate Warrior and The Undertaker from the daft stuff on TV - but these wrestlers were super-fit athletes waiting to test his strength, durability and as yet non-existent wrestling ability!

But Fraser got lucky because volunteering to take him through some moves was Oli Cole, a wrestler from Cardiff, dedicated in his quest for a medal in Glasgow.

Oli's aim after the games is to become a coach you could see why as he took Fraser through a session that was one of the best I have seen in any sport.

His instructions were precise and detail was put into practice, as moves were broken down and undertaken in slow motion.

There were moments of humour, like when Fraser threw Oli but was turned over like a rag doll - or when Oli casually lifted him above his head to show how to counter an attack.

The time flew but it was plain to see that Fraser would have stayed for hours because, in Oli’s words, he had begun to look like a promising novice wrestler!

There were offers from Alan and Oli to help get a club started in our county – and I suspect one of the first who might enroll would be Fraser, because he loved his final challenge that really rounded off the series in style!

Tune into this week’s Radio Pembrokeshire Friday Night Sport Show, between 6-8pm, to listen to Bill Carne talk to Fraser about his wrestling debut, and Alan Jones, Oli Cole, and Arash Shojaei about their involvement.

For more information on any of the Commonwealth Games sports covered in the past 17 weeks, visit the Sport Pembrokeshire Facebook Page or www.pembrokeshire.gov.uk/sport.

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