FAIRMONT — For years, the student-athletes at Fairmont watched surrounding Robeson County schools participate in wrestling matches and tournaments against some of the best talent the state has to offer.
Purnell Swett, Lumberton and St. Pauls are currently the only county schools with wrestling programs, and for Justin Sweet, the time for watching has come to pass as he looks to become the first-ever Golden Tornadoes wrestling coach when the new season starts later this year.
“Really, I had kind of given up hope because there was a conversation every year and it never went anywhere,” Sweet said candidly. “I’m excited now because I can feel that it’s actually going to happen this time.”
The 26-year-old, first-year teacher says that though he personally didn’t have to endure the on-again, off-again talks of starting a new program, his wife, Indya, who had already been teaching at Fairmont, kept him up to speed.
“Before I began teaching, my wife and I agreed the only sport I would coach was wrestling, but considering that Fairmont didn’t have a wrestling team, I wasn’t planning on coaching anytime soon. I am thankful that opportunity came along,” Sweet said.
When he came for his interview prior to the outset of the school year, Sweet resurfaced the conversation with Fairmont principal Ken Prater and wasn’t sure how effective his plea was until current football coach Kevin Inman asked him to be in the forefront of a reenergized movement.
With the newfound optimism, Sweet enlisted the help of local youth wrestling proponents like P.J. Smith, a former wrestling coach at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke who now assists with local organizations in the sport.
Fairmont held an interest meeting last month explaining what would be required from the athletes in terms of conditioning, hydration, as well as how to balance academics. Sweet says he was pleased with the turnout as roughly 20 boys and six girls signed up.
Then on May 6, he and Smith made a formal proposal at the Robeson County Board of Commissioners meeting, to which both expressed the fundamental values the sport can provide for each student and the community as a whole.
“Fairmont has had a storied athletic program, but they are planning on having a wrestling program next year,” Smith said at the meeting. Smith said the idea is just a “natural draw” with teams in the county already established and thus allows for more tournaments that can serve as a gateway to one of the best college programs in the area, UNCP, headed by Othello “O.T.” Johnson.
“O.T. Johnson is looking for local talent, but he has to win, so this is a good way for us to grow local talent,” Smith said.
Meanwhile, Sweet, a former wrestler in both middle school and high school also mentioned reaching out to Johnson throughout the process regarding logistics and what financial challenges lie ahead. The most costly part of the equation is purchasing a new wrestling mat, which Sweet estimates anywhere from $7,000-8,000.
According to Sweet, both he and Smith asked the board for $4,500 to help thwart some of the initial finances.
Though they still await word from the board on the requested funds, Sweet says Purnell Swett donated a temporary mat, which he, the school and local community are grateful for as they get one step closer.
“When the high school has a team, the town’s parks and recreation will have a team over in Fairmont. Robeson County is behind because we don’t have middle school wrestling. We plan on putting a youth wrestling program in place in Fairmont using that mat,” Smith said.
As of now, Sweet says the plan is to coordinate with the basketball team to use the gym for home meets with practices being held in the cafeteria or the school’s theatre. In regards to the impact the sport will have on the community, he says that extends well beyond a mat.
“I think it’s a great opportunity because when I wrestled in high school, it was more than just about wrestling,” he said. “Our coaches focused a lot on us becoming men…it was always about respect, making sure your grades were where they needed to be…And staying out of trouble.”