I arrived at Stanford in the fall of 1972, a Chicano wrestler from Bakersfield. Those three independent but interrelated elements of my identity are what prepared, sustained, and allowed me to thrive in my new foreign environment, that was Stanford. Those same identities continued to serve me in all of my academic and professional opportunities since then. To these identities I have added, Stanford graduate.
Bakersfield in the 60’s and 70’s was a challenging place to grow up. It was hardscrabble. Not only was it oppressively hot, it was also segregated with very rigid racial and social hierarchy. I was born in a barrio called The Little Okie. It was a neighborhood on the outskirts of town established by Dust Bowl refugees who were blocked from entering the city limits by the citizens of Bakersfield as described by Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath. As those refugees assimilated into Bakersfield, Mexican families replaced them. My father came to the US from Mexico as a contract laborer under the Bracero Program during World War II. My mother grew up in the Central Valley, a migrant farmworker. They bought a small 400 square foot house in The Little Okie. I visit that neighborhood, still primarily Chicano, every time I am in Bakersfield. I do it to remind myself of the opportunities that I have been given and to face the hard work that remains to be done.
I graduated from Bakersfield High School. While my diploma may not have prepared me academically as well as my Stanford classmates from Choate or Phillips Exeter, it did prepare me to cope with adversity. At BHS we were indoctrinated to believe that we were the best at everything. I learned that whether or not that was true, the belief could take you a long way. I graduated with six other members of the 1972 CIF Valley Championship wrestling team. That group now includes two lawyers, an MD, a CPA, a PhD in physics, and the coach of the 2002 BHS Driller State Champions. While I have lived in many places, when asked where I’m from I answer: Bakersfield.
I was part of one of the first classes of Chicano freshmen admitted to Stanford in any significant number. 1972 was the first year of Casa Zapata, the Chicano theme house in Stern Hall where 45 of us lived. Stanford understood that nearly all of us were first generation college students from neighborhoods and high schools vastly different from those of our classmates. Stanford understood that we needed a place where we could mutually support each other and not have to explain ourselves. I will always be grateful for the support that the University provided us, and it worked. Countless doctors, lawyers, professors, engineers, policymakers, and even Cabinet members, found community in Casa Zapata. It provided a tangible element of our education and growth. It is part of what makes Stanford so special, by supporting its students with opportunities to develop beyond academic metrics and include those intangibles that make determined and compassionate contributors to society. This includes athletics as well.
Stanford gave me the opportunity to continue to wrestle at a high level of competition while allowing me the freedom to experience and develop in other areas. I was a walk-on, but Stanford gave me the opportunity to compete in the Pac 8 and qualify for the NCAA National Tournament. I never had an athletic scholarship. I had sufficient financial aid, as would many wrestlers, based on financial need. Yet I was named the team’s Outstanding Freshman, and my senior year, Outstanding Wrestler. I have always been proud of Stanford’s athletic excellence while maintaining the true ideal of the “student athlete”. We would strive to be the best at both, but we were students first. I competed as a wrestler for 30 years, much longer than I ever should have. But I love the sport and what it continued to teach me about myself.
When I was in law school I worked out with the Cal team in the last years of their program. When I returned to earn my MPA at the Kennedy School I worked out with the Harvard team. The quality and balance of the individuals that the Stanford Wrestling Program attracts and nurtures is beyond compare, even with those other quality programs. Stanford wrestlers are many-faceted. And we apply the lessons that we learn on the mat to everything we do. We know that there are no shortcuts to preparation. Wrestling pushes us beyond our limits, but we strike the word “quit” from our vocabulary. In wrestling, you can be far behind on the scoreboard but as long as you keep your head about you and look for openings, you can always win. And because the same goes for your opponent, you can never let up regardless of how far ahead you are. Wrestling taught me that for every advantage there is a disadvantage and for every disadvantage there is an advantage. The trick is to recognize them.
I understand that any athlete can list the lessons they learn from their sport and how they apply them to their life. Those lessons and their application is the real purpose and benefit of high school and college athletics. Although it is nice to fill stadiums and build tribal pride and loyalty, what makes college sports important, especially at places like Stanford, is how the lessons learned contribute to developing future leaders. I understand that Stanford has difficult decisions to make in maintaining a sustainable athletic program. So, why Keep Stanford Wrestling?
Wrestling is a unique sport. It is one of the most egalitarian sports. You don’t need a country club membership to access the courts or pools or courses to learn and practice the sport. You don’t need to be tall or bulky or fast, but if you are, you are not precluded from wrestling. Your parents don’t need to be able to pay club fees so that you can attract the attention of college recruiters. You can be male or female, rich or poor. All you need is a pair of wrestling shoes, a headgear, maybe a pair of knee pads, and the courage to push yourself to achieve your goals. Keeping Stanford Wrestling means keeping open the opportunity for a kid from the Little Okie in Bakersfield to graduate from some of the greatest universities in the country and develop the skills that my community needs to fight for the benefits of a just society.
Please, Keep Stanford Wrestling.
- John Govea