Providence Journal: Billy Watterson leads effort to get city middle schoolers wrestling

Providence Journal: Billy Watterson leads effort to get city middle schoolers wrestling

By John Gillooly, Providence Journal

May 1, 2014

PROVIDENCE — The original plan was to finish his college wrestling career and graduate from Brown University this year.

But then Billy Watterson '15 saw a more pressing need than getting a quick start on his professional career.

"I was volunteering with Junior Achievement in Providence," said Watterson, a Pound Ridge, N.Y., native.

"When I would ask the kids what was their dream jobs, they would say they wanted to work at the mall, or they wanted to work in a grocery store or a gas station. It was killing me. When you're in the seventh or eighth grade, the sky should be the limit for your dreams. To me these kids sounded like they already had been beaten down by life."

Watterson knew all about young people who lack vision and self-esteem. He once was one of them.

"When I was in the seventh grade I was 90 pounds, and I couldn't catch a baseball if my life depended on it," said Watterson. "I was getting C's and F's in school. I was struggling, I stopped believing in myself, and I stopped trying."

Then Watterson was introduced to wrestling.

"Wrestling was a sport that didn't matter that I was 90 pounds and couldn't catch a baseball. Anyone can compete in wrestling. It's more about how much you are willing to work than athletic talent. I started competing in wrestling. I started to succeed, then I started to realize that if I worked hard I could succeed in anything. I started succeeding in all areas of my life, and I credit that to my success in wrestling."

Watterson kept volunteering with Junior Achievement, but he felt something was missing.

Then he found out there were hardly any after-school athletic programs in the Providence public middle schools. Watterson knew what he needed to do.

"I said, 'Wrestling needs to be in Providence middle schools,'" said Watterson. "I said, 'This is what I need to do to make a difference.'"

So last summer he decided to take a year off from his studies and varsity wrestling at Brown and form a nonprofit organization that would fund and conduct a wrestling program for Providence public middle school students.

"We got a group of people to form a board of directors. We incorporated as a nonprofit and started talking to people in Providence about how to get into the city's middle schools," said Watterson, who became both the executive director and one of the program's coaches.

He understood that there is a strange paradox in this country these days.

Everybody from First Lady Michelle Obama to medical professionals is saying we have become a nation where young people are sitting around too much. Today's kids are too sedentary, often mesmerized by electronic devices.

Kids need to get out and be active, the experts say. But the sad fact is that in most urban areas a kid can't just walk out the door to play on the streets or the local playground without being exposed to the dangers of the city streets.

That's why Watterson's program is called "Beat the Streets."

"They need a positive after-school environment," Watterson said about Providence middle school students. "There are some good after-school programs in the city, but they need more."

He is a history major at Brown, so he has done all the research. He can tell you that between 2009 and 2011, an estimated $3.5 billon was cut from sports budgets at public schools around the nation. A disproportionate share of those cuts have fallen on low-income and urban areas.

"Wrestling can draw kids like me who are struggling, looking for something they can do and be successful," said Watterson, who was a New York high school regional champion and the No. 3 finisher in the state tournament as senior at John Jay High School.

"I went from C's and F's in middle school to A's in high school," said Watterson. "I was hanging around with the wrong type of kids in middle school. Once I started wrestling, my teammates became my friends, and I had a different direction. I was recruited by Brown because I was a wrestler."

This school year, the program was in two Providence middle schools, with 57 students participating.

"We were able to join the middle school league, and it was great," said Watterson. "We had matches all over the state."

For young students who had never wrestled it was learning experience, which made it even more rewarding for Watterson.

"Our first match, every one of our kids was pinned," said Watterson.

By the end of the season, a dozen members of the team had progressed so far that they qualified for the state middle school tournament and one, eighth grader David Sanabria, won a state championship.

Monday, Sanabria and several of his state tournament qualifying teammates were at Providence City Hall to accept citations from Mayor Angel Taveras for their achievements.

"I didn't know anything about wrestling before this program, and now I will be wrestling in high school next year," said Sanabria. "Wrestling definitely has helped me improve my schoolwork."

The goal of the program is to eventually have a wrestling team in each of the city's public middle and high schools. Currently, only two Providence high schools, Hope and Mount Pleasant, field Interscholastic League varsity wrestling teams.

In the fall, Watterson will return to Brown for his senior year. He will compete in the 125-pound class for the wrestling team.

"Right now I'm about 10 pounds overweight. I need to make weight by August so I'm starting to work on it now," said Watterson with a chuckle.

"But I still will be around this program. I love coaching these kids."

"You see kids who come into our program and, whether they win or lose, over the season they change. Seeing that has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life," the 22-year-old Watterson continued.

"Show a kid if he works hard he is going to succeed and that will change his life. I promise."