Wrestling doc depicts trials, triumphs

'On the Mat' goes inside the 2010-11 Lake Stevens (Wash.) wrestling squad

Updated: April 26, 2012, 2:57 PM ET
By Lucas O'Neill | ESPNHS

Many people know actor Chris Pratt as the affable Andy from NBC's "Parks and Recreation." They probably don't know he was an excellent wrestler for one of the most dominant high school programs in country -- Lake Stevens (Wash.) -- and they probably don't know what that entails.

The idea to showcase the trials and triumphs of high school wrestlers is behind Pratt's and director Fredric Golding's new movie "On the Mat," which debuted Monday at the Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival in New York. (The film screens again Thursday at 4 p.m. and Saturday at 2:30.)

"I want people to see and understand that high school wrestling is really like nothing that they've thought about," Golding said. "It really is a sport that presupposes an extraordinary amount of dedication, an extraordinary amount of mental toughness."

The documentary follows Lake Stevens through a turbulent 2010-11 season in which the team was attempting to win its fourth state title in five years, and the seventh in 10. It's told predominantly through the eyes of five wrestlers, and without providing too many spoilers, we'll just say it was quite an eventful and dramatic season for all five -- and the movie seems to capture every pivotal moment.

"I could not have written that script," Golding said. "You wouldn't have believed it."

One example (skip ahead if you don't want to know): Eric Solar, a sophomore at the time, tore his ACL during the season. Rather than immediately getting surgery, he chooses to slap a brace on it and play out the season first.

More than a year later, Golding is still floored by the decision.

"What? You're going to wrestle? You have to be kidding," he said. "For a normal person to walk around with a torn ACL, that's one thing. For a 15-year-old kid to wrestle like that … It's pretty astounding when you think about it."

"Wrestling, there's a lot more to it than meets the eye," Solar said. "It's an emotional thing. You have to have the right personality to do it and you have to dedicate yourself. If you worry about other stuff around you besides just wrestling, it messes with your head and you don't wrestle your best."

"On the Mat" began as a television show for MTV's popular "True Life" series. When he was done filming, however, Golding knew he had a ton of great footage -- far more than he needed for the TV version. He also knew he had Pratt, who wrote the original pitch about following the team but hadn't appeared in the "True Life" treatment.

In the movie version, Pratt provides important perspective as someone who had gone through the gantlet that is Lake Stevens wrestling. Funny and at times profane, Pratt is an unusual narrator but one who understands the subject intimately. He credits high school wrestling -- and in particular Lake Stevens coach Brent Barnes -- with making him the man he is today.

It's not always pretty. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the film (if not of high school wrestling in general) is the constant focus on cutting weight. While it's easy to say the practice is bad -- these are growing kids, after all, and unsupervised cutting has led to injury and even death -- it's probably more accurate to say it's complicated. The film depicts cutting weight as a grueling but necessary part of the sport.

"It's torture," Golding said. "It's awful. It's not a pleasant experience for these kids. From my observation, is it bad for kids? I'd say no."

While wrestling is the lens through which the story is told, "On the Mat" is ultimately a character doc about the five wrestlers and Barnes.

"Their emotions come out after they're on the mat," Golding said, "which is really what I wanted to explore anyway -- the emotions off the mat as opposed to on the mat."

There's a line in the film, ostensibly about one of the wrestlers, Jesse, that can be applied to the sport as a whole. To paraphrase: Wrestling in the great equalizer. Where can you see a kid who weighs 103 pounds become the hero?

"Certainly not football, certainly not basketball, certainly not baseball," Golding said. "But in wrestling you can."

Additional reporting provided by David Auguste.