Wrestling Program Cancelled in all 11 Renfrew County High Schools

Renfrew -- After 33 years and producing champions and medallists at all levels of competition from the provincials to the Worlds, wrestling is no longer a sanctioned high school sport in Renfrew County.

Without an official announcement, notification or discussion with the student athletes, parents, coaches, or the Renfrew Vipers Amateur Wrestling Club that ran the high school program, last June the Upper Ottawa Valley High School Athletic Association (UOVHSAA) voted unanimously to remove wrestling from the list of approved sports in all public, Catholic, and French high schools.

The decision effectively barred all county high school wrestlers from being able to compete at the Eastern Ontario Secondary School Athletic Association (EOSSAA) championships this year and in the foreseeable future. That means students were also unable to qualify and compete at the Ontario Federation of Secondary Athletics Association (OFSAA) championships.

UOVHSAA is a Renfrew County District School Board (RCDSB) organization that is “dedicated to the promotion and enhancement of the educational value of school sport.” Its executive is comprised of athletic directors from the 11 member schools, and it governs sport scheduling, regulations, and inter-school championships. It is a member of both EOSSAA and OFSAA.

Mike Havey is the school athletic coordinator for UOVHSAA, a part-time position with the RCDSB.

He said the decision to remove wrestling was made because there wasn’t a tournament in place for students from the 11 schools to compete against each other to qualify for EOSSAA. Instead, students could go directly to the Eastern Ontario level.

Although there are other area high school sports that don’t have an EOSSAA qualifier, Mr. Havey said those student athletes are coached by a qualified teacher. In comparison, the wrestling program had trained coaches from the Renfrew Club come into the schools to coach the students with volunteer teacher supervisors.

“The coaching for wrestling exists outside of the school system so how can we consider it a school-trained sport? Combined with declining participation and difficulty finding teachers to supervise or coach, the decision was made to remove wrestling as a school sanctioned sport,” said Mr. Havey.

The motion to cancel wrestling was put forward at the UOVHSAA Annual General Meeting by Renfrew Collegiate Institute (RCI) teacher Adam Noack and seconded by Joe Lavoie, from Fellowes High School in Pembroke. Mr. Lavoie is now the vice-principal at RCI.

He said he supported the motion as UOVHSAA member schools “have the responsibility of ensuring the safety and well-being of their student athletes.”

“We have to be extremely careful not to blur the lines between community club programs and school-based programs, which was not always the case in the past,” Mr. Lavoie said. “UOVHSAA and community programs (like the Renfrew Vipers Wrestling Club) are completely separate entities and they need to be treated as such for a variety of reasons.

For example, they have differences in risk tolerance, liability thresholds, organizational vision, values and beliefs, codes of conduct, goals, etc. What works for UOVHSAA may not work for club programs and vice versa.”

Dismayed Reaction To Cancellation Echoed By Students, Parents and Club

The list of accomplished wrestlers, medallists, award-winners and scholarship recipients from Renfrew County wrestlers over three decades is long and prestigious. So, for students, parents and the Renfrew Club, the decision to cancel the sport came as a shock.

“I am passionate about wrestling, so as I have done in the past, I reached out to the high school to find out when the practices would start for EOSSAA training and was told wrestling had been cancelled. We had no idea,” said Amanda Gibbons, a teacher and wrestling coach at Admaston Public School.

Ms. Gibbons told her daughter, an award-winning wrestler, and also the Renfrew Club, who had not been notified.

“This is my last year in high school; it would have been nice to be able to go to EOSSAA and OFSAA and close out my wrestling career with a final hurrah,” said Ariel Gibbons.

Ms. Gibbons won gold at EOSSAA in 2023 and took the bronze at OFSAA later that year. She was also the 2023 female recipient of the EOSSAA Officials Cup awarded to athletes who best demonstrate the true spirit of overall wrestling. This year, because of the UOVHSAA vote, she was unable to compete.

For the club, learning the news indirectly and months after the decision was made, was bitterly disappointing.

Grant Lavallee, Master Coach with Wrestling Canada, founded the program at RCI in 1991 with the late Jim McGregor. Over the ensuing years through its fundraising efforts, the club was able to place $10,000 wrestling mats in elementary and high schools across the county.

“It breaks my heart to think there are all of these kids who aren’t on the hockey teams and basketball teams who will have no idea there is a sport that could provide them with the chance to be an athlete, and compete, travel and go to university – the sky is the limit,” said Coach Lavallee.

“Wrestling is the only truly inclusive sport for all kids. Unlike other sports, wrestling allows the smallest, the biggest, the most unpopular kid, a place to shine. You don’t need to come from an affluent family. All you need are shorts and running shoes. To dash that potential is a travesty. It leaves all those kids behind,” added Nigel Yantha, club recruitment and development director. Mr. Yantha is a four-time OFSAA champion and is currently teaching at Our Lady of Sorrows Elementary School in Petawawa.

“Wrestling gave me a scholarship to university, I travelled the world, I wrestled internationally, I’ve trained with Olympic athletes – I mean, it has given me everything. I am a small guy, it allowed me to be comfortable with who I am and gave me dedication, motivation, physical health, and mental health. The spectrum is so broad of what wrestling gives these kids.”

Ms. Gibbons, who will be attending Laurentian University in September on a cross-country running scholarship, agrees, and said without wrestling, she wouldn’t have considered going to university nor would she have received a sports scholarship.

“I wasn’t good at sports, but I could wrestle. That gave me confidence and experience, so during COVID I started running. Wrestling gave me so many opportunities that I otherwise would have missed.”

Savana Pinsent, a four-time OFSAA medalist and Pan-Am Games Bronze Medalist, is currently a third-year student at the University of Alberta after being recruited on a wrestling scholarship. Her younger sister Sara was the OFSAA gold medalist last year. She is currently in Grade 12, and, like Ms. Gibbons, missed her last year to compete.

“It is despicable that Renfrew County wrestlers were ruled ineligible to compete in the 2024 (EOSSAA and) OFSAA championships due to a simple lack of care demonstrated by the school board. While I was attending RCI, I noticed wrestling pushed into the background of sports. It is not unusual to see wrestling continue without administrative or teacher support, though it is a whole other thing to watch the aspirations of young wrestlers be purposefully neglected and ruled to be unimportant.

I believe that Renfrew has oddly just had too many good wrestlers over time that have broken expectations. When you have too many outliers, the extraordinary just becomes mundane,” said Ms. Pinsent.

Lilah Fraser is yet another accomplished local wrestler who started her career in high school. She has competed provincially, nationally and in 2022 she qualified for the Canada Summer Games where she had a fourth-place finish. She was recruited by Algoma University on a wrestling scholarship, is currently part of the university team and was named the 2024 Athlete of the Year.

“If I didn’t have the opportunity to wrestle in high school, I wouldn’t be where I am now,” she said. “I was considering maybe going to college, but it was wrestling that made me think I could go to university. Now I want to be a teacher and high school coach. It gave me life skills, self-discipline, the opportunity to travel and so many friends.

“It is sad that they are taking this big opportunity away from future generations. My coach recruits at OFSAA. This is going to really hurt the sport.”

Her concerns are echoed by Jolie Brisco, a former wrestler from St. Joseph’s High School. She just won silver at the Canadian National Championships in March. She currently wrestles with the Montreal Wrestling Club and attends Concordia University, after also being recruited on a wrestling scholarship.

She will be competing in the U23 World Team Qualifier in Calgary on May 25, hoping to earn a spot on Team Canada and compete in both the Pan Am Championships and the World Championships. She has her eye set on the 2028 Olympics.

“Without high school wrestling, I would not have gotten to where I am now. Many top athletes don’t start until high school. They are locking doors for students before they are opened,” she said.

In response, when asked what steps need to be taken to have wrestling reinstated as a sanctioned high school sport, Mr. Lavoie said one of the requirements would be having teachers interested in becoming trained coaches.

When informed that Coach Lavalee would be prepared to donate his time to provide the required training, Mr. Lavoie welcomed the offer, however noted there are other parameters around wrestling returning as a high school sport.

There would also need to be an oversight committee comprised of three to four teachers with a high level of knowledge of the sport including the rules and regulations required to run a UOVHSAA championship. And although other Ontario districts don’t require wrestling to have an EOSSAA qualifier nor do many other sanctioned RCDSB sports, it would be mandatory for wrestling to return.

“The reality is that they just don’t want wrestling in the high schools,” says Ms. Jolie. “They are looking for problems, not solutions because they don’t want wrestling to detract from their staple sports like basketball, soccer and football.”

While the wrestling program will continue in Renfrew County elementary schools, once the students move to high school, they will no longer be able to compete.

“We have programs in all the elementary schools in Renfrew now but when they get to high school, there will be no wrestling,” said club community representative Norm Bujold. “This was our feeder program for the high schools but now when they get there, how do they go further? How do they get to university on a scholarship? That is all gone now.”

Not all hope is lost for future wrestlers, despite the UOVHSAA ruling and not being able to compete in high school. Interested students and parents can reach out for information to Renfrew Club President Curtis Haaima at curtis.haaima@outlook.com to learn about how they can participate in the next wrestling season with the club.

Meghan Cross, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader