Pat Costello started New Stuyahok's high school wrestling program in 1977, and coached it for the next nine years. He returned last weekend to referee regionals, and reflected on the program's success.
New Stuyahok hosted wrestling regionals for the first time in seven years, as 43 top wrestlers from eight communities squared off for a trip to state. In the middle of the action was Pat Costello, who helped referee the matches. Costello lives in Kodiak now, but in 1977 he started New Stuyahok’s high school wrestling program and helped develop wrestling not just in the village, but in the area as a whole.
At the time many of the villages did not have gyms, but wrestling made use of the spaces and materials schools already had.
“Our mats were a bunch of old horse hair mats," he says. "We’d tie them together and put a cover on top, and we’d wrestle. We’d practice on those. The mats would slide apart, and the kid would hit the floor hard, you know. And you push them back together.”
At home meets in New Stuyahok, the crowd would stand around the wrestlers in a circle.
“They’d fall off into the crowd because we didn’t have a gym. It was just a small, little multipurpose room. The crowd would push them back on. If there was no advantage gained, they’d keep right on wrestling. It was a hoot, and they wrestled well.”
Early in the program especially, students had the opportunity to travel to wrestling tournaments that were further from New Stuyahok than they had ever traveled. One trip they took in the first couple years of the program stands out to him.
“I remember the first time one of them got in the elevator with us in Anchorage,” says Costello. “They were just wowed at the elevator.”
Wrestling in New Stuyahok developed quickly, and within 3 years Walter Hanson was the village’s first
region champion. A lot of that had to do with collaboration between coaches in the region. Costello says, after a tournament the coaches would meet. If a New Stuyahok wrestler had a move that was particularly hard to beat, he would brainstorm with coaches from Manokotak, Dillingham, and Kotzebue ways to beat that move. And those coaches would do the same for him.
“My philosophy as a coach was if someone wanted to know what we were doing, how to do it, we’d show them because if they got better, we got better. It was never about winning. It was about getting better.”
That’s not to say, though, that the region wasn’t competitive and that there weren’t rivalries. Costello tells the story of a practical joke he and his wrestlers played at one tournament in Bethel.
“The coach up there always wants to know what our secret is,” says Costello, “So we practiced a move, and we made it up on a spot. It was a play acting move. And so they’d go through the rotation. Looked really, really good. Would not work in a match, and we knew it wouldn’t, but they don’t know that.”
When the Bethel coach started filming their warm-ups, Costello's wrestlers started practicing the fake move.
“So we saw them a week later, and they were doing the move. And it never worked.”
In the mid-80s, Costello left New Stuyahok but continued to coach wrestling for many years. Justin Gumlickpuk is one of Costello’s former wrestlers. Now he is New Stuyahok’s head wrestling coach. Costello says it’s good to come back and see his old program doing well.
“And he’s done very, very well with it. That’s really fun to come back and see. And when I go to Anchorage people are talking about the New Stuyahok kids and how well they’re doing. So, you know, he’s doing a good job, and it kind of brings pride to all of the area.”
Costello was head wrestling coach in New Stuyahok for 9 years and coached wrestling for a total of 40 years. He retired recently from coaching but still travels to referee tournaments. When he comes to New Stuyahok, he says, he sees his former wrestlers and their children keeping the competition alive.