I moved to Chicago the summer before eighth grade. My family moved from Dayton, a small city in Southern Ohio. And no, it is not near Cleveland.

My parents always say what an amazing place Dayton was to raise us, how the close-knit, family-like element in the community was perfect for raising a family, but all of Dayton’s observant Jews could probably fit into one classroom at the Academy. There weren’t the same opportunities in Dayton for observant kids, like there are here in Chicago. There were no shomer shabbat basketball and baseball leagues, and there were no school teams to play for. Here for the last two years, my brother was able to play in a shomer shabbat tackle football league—something we couldn’t have even dreamt of in Dayton!

Because I didn’t have these opportunities for the first 13 years of my life, I moved to Chicago lacking the sports skills and coordination that other kids my age took for granted. I spent my eighth grade year sitting on the bench of the seventh grade basketball team. While my friends played for the eighth grade team sporting fancier jerseys and bigger trophies, I couldn’t even get on the court to play amongst the seventh graders. I felt dejected and discouraged to continue playing organized sports. That is, until my freshman year at the Academy.

Jacob Zwelling ('15) pinning his opponent during a wrestling match

Jacob Zwelling (’15) pinning his opponent during a wrestling match

I joined the wrestling team, hoping that my chance at sports would change. Everyone told me that the wrestling coach, Coach Klein, was fantastic and he could make me love a sport that, which at the time, I really knew nothing about. I just hoped everyone was right. That year, I dedicated so much time and effort to the team. I spent many early Sunday mornings and late school nights working on my moves, perfecting them, making sure they were just as much a part of my muscle memory as blinking. I managed to win one match. Out of 17 matches that I wrestled that year, I won only one, not by forfeit or over another teammate. Yet, I didn’t feel dejected. I felt different than I had at the end of eighth grade. I was excited for my second season even after spending my first year failing miserably.

Coach Klein, my teammates, and the Academy wrestling program did something that the seventh grade basketball team did not. They made me feel like a part of something. The sense of camaraderie and teamwork that is felt in the wrestling room made me want to stay. I stuck with it, practiced harder, and the Ohioan kid without any athletic ability became a regional runner-up, third place winner, a two-time YU Wrestling Tournament runner-up, a two-time Chicago Prep Conference champion and the captain of the team.

Not only have I made great friends, and had a blast competing, but it taught me a pretty valuable lesson about practice and perseverance. I was prepared to give up on sports, but that small hint of confidence I gained my first year on the wrestling team was crucial to realizing that with some extra effort and hard work, I can rise up to almost any challenge. While the experience itself has certainly been worthwhile, what I’ve gained personally from this experience is a crucial life lesson and sometimes takes experiencing it on your own to understand what you are truly capable of.

By Jacob Zwelling, junior