MACON, Ga. — Triumph. It is a word that is so often associated with the story of overcoming obstacles and working harder than anyone else in order to achieve one’s goal.
For Social Circle senior Mitchell Thompson, however, the pinnacle of not only his wrestling career, but also his triumph came when his arms were raised in the air in celebration of winning his second state championship in a row.
“Winning this second state title feels indescribable,” said the elated Thompson. “Just knowing all my hard work since I won last year paid off, to know I achieved my goal that I put so much time and effort into makes me know it was worth it.”
As Thompson sat on top of the world, or more specifically, the podium that signified first place in the state for the Class AA 160-pound weight class, it only took a few congratulating tweets and stories to remind him that things weren’t always as bright as this moment.
However, as Thompson recalled what it was like first entering the world of wrestling -- a grueling year-long sport for many that takes strength, technique and conditioning to achieve the highest level – he shared how his story of triumph almost never came to be.
Reviving hope in his craft
“I started wrestling in sixth grade,” he said. “My best friend’s dad, Bobby Wheeler, introduced me to the sport. When I first started, I was one of the worst on the team only winning four matches, and two of those wins were against the same kid.”
In that first year, Thompson wanted to quit and even tried leaving the team before his family, friends and coaches pushed him to stick with it. Social Circle head wrestling coach, Randy Prater was one of those pushers.
“There was a time when he wanted to quit, and I had to look him in the eye and say, ‘Son, you’re special. I see it in you. You’ve got it. I want you to believe me and stick with this thing,’” Prater said.
Although he ultimately decided to continue pursuing a career on the mat, his story of triumph featured his climbing a tremendous uphill battle from then on.
As Thompson entered his Sophomore season of wrestling, small details began clicking like never before for him.
“I went to Compound Wrestling center with Douglas Peppers, and I went to the Wrestling Center with Jackson Wheeler,” Thompson said. “Peppers, Wheeler and my brother Micah taught me a lot that year and pushed me. That was when I knew if I worked hard, I’d be good at this sport.”
But even though improvement started coming more naturally for him, the obstacles of the uphill climb to his apex still loomed large.
“My sophomore year, I got beat out of the starting line up and didn’t get to compete at state,” he said as he recalled watching wrestlers he pinned in the regular season standing on the state podium while he looked on from the stands.
Prater can corroborate Thompson’s recollection.
“He had a rough freshman year here, and sophomore year, he got beat out. But you could see the improvements. He was watching guys he’d beaten make the podium at state. You knew he had it in him.”
It was in that moment that he knew he was going to set a lofty goal of winning a state championship the next season, and that nobody would get in his way of doing so.
In fact, his friend, Tristan Chambers, had Thompson’s exact prediction of making it to the state finals written down in his notes and shared via Twitter.
“’Mark my words, I’m going to make it to the state finals next year,’ – Mitchell 9:09 p.m. 2/10/17” the note said.
Title-seeking turning point
Twitter wasn’t the only place where Thompson chronicled his biggest goal.
“One day I was holding his cell phone, and I dropped it and it fell open,” Prater said. “The case fell open, and inside his phone, written in the case was, ‘I will be a two-time state champion.’ He put it on a piece of paper and put it on his mirror where he’d have to look at it every day. For him, that’s a reminder every day that, hey, I’ve gotta get up and go to work.”
Knowing that many would doubt him, Thompson set out to do anything he could to turn that prediction into proof.
“I worked out everyday that summer and anytime the wrestling room was open, I would be there,” he said. “I even paid for a trip to Las Vegas with my own money to go and wrestle in a prestigious tournament. I was on a mission.”
With his mission being clear, he described how he bought in to preparing to get to that goal.
“You can have a dream, or you can have a goal,” he said. “You imagine and think about your dream, but when you have a goal, you will do anything to achieve it.
“I worked out hard every day, and I wrestled with the best kids in the state. I drilled with Emmanuel College wrestler, Emery Cline, three times a week. I surrounded myself with state finalists and state champs. People saw me getting worked and destroyed in the wrestling room by these guys, but I got better. Some people will never know how hard I worked. I mean that.”
With his work ethic becoming stronger by the day, Thompson knew that without the emotional and spiritual support he garnered from others, his formula for triumph would never be complete, and it started with his spiritual walk that put his humility on display.
“Win or lose, all glory to God, and I mean that,” he said. “I won two state titles, but my identity is found in Jesus Christ, not wrestling. I am a Christian who happens to wrestle.”
With his love for God, you can often find Thompson mentoring his friends at house church or in any kind of conversation. He does that, perhaps as a way of pay back — knowing that his friendships were another key rung in his ladder of support.
That Social Circle family feeling
If you were to ask Thompson about his father, he would probably ask, “which one” out of the three. Aside from his heavenly father and biological father who supported him so much through his journey, he also found a father inside the program in Prater.
“Coach Prater is another father to me,” he said. “I’ve had conversations about life with him, not just wrestling. He taught me if I want something, I have to work for it, not just in wrestling, but in life. I know even after I graduate, if I ever need anything, he will be there for me, same with all the coaches in the wrestling room.”
It was this formula of hard work and having support all around him that led him to his first state championship during his junior year. A victory that included the celebratory act caught and widely distributed on Twitter of wrestling Prater to the mat.
And although he described winning his first state title as amazing and fulfilling, he was entering his final year of wrestling in high school, and he knew that he went from bring the hunter, to the hunted, which added an immense amount of pressure that he had never experienced before.
“This past season has been tough,” he said. “Last year, I came into the season as an underdog, or a better word would be a nobody. But this year, everyone knew who I was. I got everyone’s best match because they knew I was the returning champ. After practice I would stay with coach Cline and coach (Roger) Strom to better my technique and my conditioning. I wanted to know no one was working harder than me.”
Not to be outworked at all this season, Thompson earned himself a 39-6 record and despite the pressure, was many people’s odds-on favorite to win his second state title.
So, when the final whistle blew in Macon this past Saturday, and Thompson’s arms were raised once again, and when he stood over everyone on top of the highest point of the awards podium, he knew in that moment that his triumph story was complete.
It was a story that wouldn’t have happened had he gone through with quitting in sixth grade, and it was a story that showed just how much his love for wrestling was really measured.
“I fell in love with wrestling for many reasons,” he said. “For one, I love the grind as I personally love working hard and pushing myself past my bodies limits. However, another reason why I love it is because you don’t have to be talented to be great. Social Circle taught me if you put the hours in the weight room, wrestling room, and you believe in yourself, you can be successful. I’m not as talented as some people, but I know for a fact I work harder.”
New beginnings, lessons learned
Although this particular chapter of Thompson’s story has been completed, a new one is now set to begin.
Thompson has signed his letter of intent to further his education and wrestling career at Lander University in Greenwood, South Carolina. It is a school with a brand new wrestling program, in which Thompson will be one of many on its inaugural team.
And while he is unsure of any goals at the moment, he knows for sure that he just wants to get a college degree and make his name one of honor.
“I know God holds my future, so I am not worried,” he said.
He’ll leave behind a legacy at Social Circle that will not be forgotten. Much like he had his own mentors in Cline and fellow senior state championJosh Engstrom, he knows that he is and will be a mentor to the wrestlers that go through some of the same things that his triumph story took him through, and with that knowledge, he had five pieces of advice for them.
“This is something I want to tell anyone who reads my story,” he said. “If you want something in life, if you have a dream or a goal, I want to give some advice. One, you have to believe in yourself. Two, make your goal public. Let people know that you’re working for.
“Three, you have to work harder than everyone. There were days and nights I would get up very early in the morning and stay up very late at night putting in more hard work and time. Four, surround yourself with people you want to be like. Pay attention to their habits and what makes them different from others. Five, always know why you’re doing it. Have a reason to work hard and know your purpose.”