Sean Kim's lip was bloody. His cauliflower ear hurt. His T-shirt was wet with sweat. He stretched out on his back in exhaustion, looking up at the ceiling of the little Schurr High gym. In a moment, another fresh opponent would try to work him over.
"He could wrestle 24 hours a day," said Coach Mike Garcia, who was getting Kim ready for this weekend's national high school championships at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.
As practice continued last week. Kim, 5 feet 2 and 112 pounds, jumped up and faced another teammate. They feinted and lunged at each other. Their arms locked, their heads butted, their bodies strained to acquire leverage. Then, with startling quickness, Kim spun, grabbed his opponent from behind and, in a tangle of limbs, drove him to the black mat.
Earlier this month in Stockton, Kim won a state title in his weight category, as did teammate David Wakisaka in the 160-pound division. Schurr, which had never had a state champion, can now boast of being the only school among the more than 1,000 in California to have two individual titlists this season.
School officials and supporters of the team have been basking in the glow cast by the two seniors, who, away from the mats, are pleasant-mannered honor students.
Kim has a 4.0 grade-point average (straight A's) and intends to be a commercial artist; Wakisaka has a 3.8 and wants to be an orthopedic surgeon.
"They have captured people's notions about good kids," said Norm Kirschenbaum, assistant superintendent of the Montebello Unified School District. "They're great role models and we're proud in these hard times of school bashing that we have these kinds of positive examples."
It was not certain at first if the two wrestlers and their coach would be able to go to the nationals. The Montebello Unified School District could not afford the $3,000 to send them. And most of the wrestling fund had been used for the Stockton trip. But school board members have solicited donations, and the wrestlers have held fund-raisers, including a carwash. In addition, the school's athletic booster club chipped in $1,000, and a pro wrestler called The Wall gave $300.
"My heart is overwhelmed," Garcia said. "I can't believe the effort that
has been put forth to raise the money to send them to this meet."
Kim's record this season, due mainly to an aggressive style that produced 275 takedowns, is 56-1.
"He's a tremendous athlete who learns very quickly," Garcia said. "He has great gymnastics ability as well."
At Stockton, before a capacity crowd of 6,000 in the Spanos Center, Kim avenged his only loss of the season by defeating Shane Valdez of Calvary Chapel.
"I took him down, and that gave me the momentum," said Kim, a runner-up in last year's state meet. Like Wakisaka, he won five consecutive matches in two days at Stockton.
Kim was introduced to the sport by his brother, Sheldon, a former Schurr wrestler now on the Cal State Fullerton team. "I was waiting for high school just so I could wrestle," Sean Kim said. "I just love it, the competing, the winning. A one-on-one sport, that's what I like."
Wakisaka does not quite share Kim's passion for wrestling. A judo competitor since he was 9, he had to be persuaded by Garcia to join the wrestling team.
"He had to persuade a lot," Wakisaka said with a laugh. He was second in the CIF Southern Section finals last year and third this season, and his record is 51-6.
"He's one of those kids who is very volatile and powerful," Garcia said. "It's just a matter of getting him in the right frame of mind at the right time."
"I worked for it," Wakisaka said of the state title, "but not as hard as Sean did."
Tuesday morning, about 60 Schurr varsity and JV wrestlers gathered for a ceremo in the school's main gym. Kim and Wakisaka would be honored before an audience that would consist of only the wrestlers and a handful of school officials, and a $300 check would be presented by The Wall.
Trophies that been tucked away because there was no room in the school's trophy case were hauled out and dusted to better reflect Schurr's wrestling tradition.
The varsity team has won the Altmont League four of the past five years, and the JV team has won 13 consecutive league titles. For six years in a row, Schurr wrestlers have brought home medals from the state tournament. This season the Spartans had an 11-1 record, finished second in Division II of the Southern Section and fifth in the state tournament.
Still, the wrestlers sweat well out of the spotlight.
"It's not like football," Kim said. "Everyone goes to see football, but wrestling is not that big of a thing here."
That irritates Henry Priest, a volunteer assistant coach who wrestled at Schurr five years ago. "We work so hard, and this is all we've got all year," he said. "We didn't even get a pep rally. If it was football, the mayor would be here, and the students would have come."
Even without the rest of the students, the wrestlers said they were proud to have their little ceremony. Wearing sweaters or shirts and ties, they sat in the bleachers in front of the trophies. They became excited when they saw, coming through the door, a TV crew and 470-pound Robert (The Wall) Wallgraves, who is on the World Championship Wrestling circuit.
Wallgraves was accompanied by his agent, Dave Hayes, a member of the South Whittier School District board. "The Wall really felt we had to do something for these boys," Hayes said.
As the ceremony got under way, Garcia was introduced. Referring to Kim and Wakisaka, he said, "These two represent the types of students we strive to produce in the Montebello Unified School District."
The coach introduced Hayes, who said: "At times today you can pick up a paper and you're always going to read negative about our young people today. Unfortunately, a lot of their peers look up to these little hoodlums and think they're tough guys. These are the true tough guys."
As The Wall presented the check, Hayes said, "He bench-presses about 660 pounds."
The Wall then picked up the two young wrestling stars, one with each arm.
When the howls of laughter and the applause had died down, someone said, "Sean'd take him down."