Gilchrist navigating coaching high school wrestling in California through COVID-19

Kyle Gilchrist is shown in his Jefferson wrestling days. Now, Gilchrist is coaching wrestlers at Clovis West High School in Fresno, Ca. It's been a challenge, though, with the coronavirus pandemic still affecting the country in a big way.

With a little help from family and friends and a touch of luck, Kyle Gilchrist has made all the right moves for a successful career.

* Finish Jefferson High School (Class of 2008) with a perfect GPA and become class valedictorian. Check.

* Enjoy a successful athletic career at the high school and college levels. Check.

* Earn a college scholarship from a prestigious Ivy League university, start for that college’s wrestling team for four years and finish with honors and a bachelor’s degree. Check.

* Be awarded a post-graduate scholarship at a highly-rated California university, allowing him to earn a master’s degree and gain experience as a wrestling coach in the meantime. Check.

* Parlay that experience into a job at a well-known high school in a hotbed of high school wrestling in Fresno, Calif. Check.

Now, at the age of 30, Gilchrist may face his toughest foe yet — the coronavirus pandemic.

Oh, he doesn’t have the disease. But coaching a sport that requires constant contact between opponents, arguably the toughest sport to avoid someone else’s germs, is a huge challenge.

Gilchrist and his fellow California wrestling coaches were fortunate to finish the 2019-2020 season before COVID-19 shut down school activities, good luck that Ohio and many other states couldn’t claim.

But now comes the hard part: Finding a way to practice a sport that begs for contact without actually allowing that contact. And looming in the distance is a discomfiting fact —It will be almost impossible to have wrestling matches without (A) extensive coronavirus testing, or better yet and (B) an effective vaccine.

“We’ve talked a lot about how to deal with the pandemic as a coaching staff,” Gilchrist said. “It’s frustrating. Our sport is all contact.”

The state of California opened high school sports to practices earlier than many states. But how one conducts those practices under the guidelines provided is a problem.

“We’re practicing social distancing,” Gilchrist said. “We try our best. Our coaches are trying to keep practices enjoyable while keeping [the wrestlers] 6-feet apart. You can practice certain drills.”

But how does one wrestle 6-feet away from someone? Well, one thing is shadow wrestle. It's similar to shadow-boxing except it’s, well, you know, wrestling.

Wrestlers can practice getting their techniques down this way, something Gilchrist sees as a 'great opportunity to go back and focus on the fundamentals of the sport in an individual setting.'

“It’s given us an opportunity to slow down and focus on individuals and techniques,” he said.

The Golden Eagles have 28 wrestlers on their team, but, because of the limited space in the practice room, can have only 10 practicing in there at one time.

“We can only have 10 kids in a ‘pod,’” Gilchrist said. “If we have more than 10, we have to create a different pod or go somewhere else.”

Hanging over everyone’s head is, instead of the virus letting up, it is actually gaining strength, and California has been hit hard.

As of Tuesday, California has 466,550 cases and 8,518 deaths with 7,417,866 tests reported, according to covid19.ca.gov

Though California has mandated people wear masks in public, some businesses are practicing the directive selectively, Gilchrist said.

“Right now. we’re all at the mercy of the directives we receive,” Gilchrist said. “If things get any worse, we could [have to stop practices]. We’re kind of in limbo."

Despite the uncertainty, Gilchrist is glad to be at least do something with the sport.

"Even with the limited scope of what we can realistically do for our practices right now, it’s just been great to be able to work with the kids again," he said. "For the past month, it’s been exciting and refreshing to be able to have the team come back together and push each other to be better and continue to build those team bonds and successful culture.

"It was very tough for me to not be able to work out with the kids or even simply see our wrestlers for the last few months of school, but I’m very thankful that our school district gave us an opportunity to begin working with our kids again at the beginning of the summer."

Recommended for you