Payten Smith with two local kids she has coached in wrestling, Tyson and Damon Deane-Freeman. (Contributed)

Wrestlers rally to save Ramblers team

Loss of MRSS annex threatens successful program

Ramblers wrestling alumni are lobbying to make sure the loss of the Maple Ridge secondary annex does not mean the loss of the school’s storied wrestling program.

A group of about 30 who support the program appeared at the Dec. 12 meeting of the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows school board. Although they could not get on the agenda, they got on the board’s radar during question period for 15 minutes at the end of the meeting – after waiting about three hours for their turn to speak.

The building known as the MRSS Annex was once an elementary school. It was shut down in 2009 due to declining enrolment in the district, and the space taken over by the adjacent high school. But now Mt. Crescent elementary will be renovated and re-open for its original purpose, as growth in the district puts demands on all available classroom space. It will undergo a $4.85 million upgrade, and the aim is for it to be ready by September 2020.

That means the wrestling program will be looking for a new wrestling room, and alumni are worried one might not be available.

The group was led by Payten Smith, a fifth-year criminology student at SFU, who is one of the wrestling program’s greatest athletes. She won silver at the provincial championships in Grades 8 and 9, and then took gold for each of the next three years. She also won gold at the national championships twice, and at the Canada Summer Games.

Then she went on to wrestle for SFU, where she won bronze at nationals her first year, silver in her second, and then took gold. Last year at nationals she suffered a serious neck injury – a damaged vertebrae – that ended her wrestling career. But she is still at SFU this year, studying criminology, and plans to return next year to pursue an honours degree. She said the wrestling program helped

Smith said she was devastated to learn that the wrestling program might not survive. Coach Bill McCrae doubts the program could successfully share the high school gymnasium with basketball and other sports. He is also not willing to roll up his wrestling mats and remove them after every practice, saying the wrestling team needs its own dedicated space.

Smith supports that position, saying that rolling up mats does not give them enough access to fresh air, which is essential to avoiding the spread of diseases including ringworm, staff infections and an affliction called “mat herpes” which is not uncommon among university wrestlers.

The school district has said the wrestling program will not be killed by this change.

“We’ll be working with MRSS staff over the next few months to address any specific concerns they may have, and to help them plan a smooth transition,” said school district spokesperson Irena Pochop.

She said the gym spaces at MRSS are in line with ministry guidelines and meet all the requirements for a school population this size. Also, not all programs require gym space, and wrestlers could train in any room where they can put down a mat.

Smith said she is skeptical.

“I attended MRSS, and I know there is not a lot of space in that building,” she said.

She said being on the team was life changing for her, and to so many of the other alumni she contacted. She give credit to McCrae for building a great program.

“He’s amazing. He’s fantastic. He’s like a family member – like an uncle,” she said. “He comes off a little hard-edged, but it’s because he cares so much.”

Smith will be allowed to speak at the Jan. 16th meeting of the board, regarding her concerns for the programs at Mount Crescent.

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