The wrestling mat was a sanctuary for Tyler Sung.
An emotional month had led to this moment: Sung’s New Canaan teammates loudly cheering him on from the side of the mat, and his coaches watching intently from the corner, in the bright spotlight of the FCIAC wrestling finals.
Sung has won many championships during his four seasons with the Rams. This one, however, went beyond sports.
“With everything that’s happened,” Sung said afterwards, “if it wasn’t for wrestling and the giant support I’ve had behind me, I’d be lost right now.”
Sung’s senior season had been disrupted to start, as he was recovering from knee surgery and missed the majority of the dual meet schedule. In retrospect, recovering from an injury was the easy part.
As Tyler was nearing a return to competition, his mother, Carol Sung, passed away on Jan. 26. Carol had been matside for her son’s numerous championships, both in youth leagues and at the high school level.
With an emotional whirlwind around him, Tyler wanted to escape back into the familiar zone of the mat.
“With wrestling, when everything happened, that was the only place I wanted to be,” Sung said. “That helps take everything away from me, all the pain and all that stuff. That’s where I can be myself and can just relax and feel good.”
Tyler’s loss also hit his teammates hard. He’s excelled on the mats since his freshman year, providing inspiration for his fellow wrestlers and developing into a leader and a team captain.
New Canaan coach Bobby Rushton said it was a poignant moment for his Rams, as they rallied around their captain.
“I think it taught a lot of our guys empathy and how to handle adversity,” Rushton said. “Guys who had either been on the team with him for the last three years, or brand-new freshmen who didn’t have a real strong relationship with him yet, understood what their teammate needed and stepped up to the occasion.”
The emotions were palpable for Saturday’s final. Tyler, New Canaan’s all-time leader in wins with a 151-22 record, had returned just 10 days before the tournament, winning all five of his matches via pinfalls, and also scoring pins in the FCIAC quarters and semis.
In the final, Sung squared off against another veteran wrestler in Warde’s Cole Shaughnessy. Sung gained an early lead, held a 3-2 edge in the second period, and then brought it home by controlling the last three minutes for a 7-2 victory and an FCIAC three-peat.
When the final whistle pierced the air, Sung’s teammates exploded in celebration and swarmed their captain as he came off the mat.
“Everybody was here,” Rushton said. “No one went home or left early because they all wanted to be in his corner. It was an emotional win for everybody — for him, his teammates and for us as coaches. A lot of people were a little nervous going into it, but really happy with the outcome and happy for Tyler.”
Despite appearances on the mat, the typically calm and cool Sung, who was named the Most Outstanding Wrestler for the upper weight classes, said he was worried he wouldn’t be physically ready for the tournament.
“The nervous part about coming back at first was if I was still going to be up to par,” Sung said. “For a little bit, I felt like I was getting there, but I really wasn’t, conditioning-wise. With the tournaments now, I feel good.”
The way Sung approached the FCIAC tournament opened his coach’s eyes.
“It’s obviously been emotional with everything that’s gone on this year, so for him to keep his composure just shows his maturity as a wrestler and a person,” Rushton said. “I’m super-proud of him and really happy for him that he gets to walk away from New Canaan High School with the most wins and now the most FCIAC championships. He’s an impressive wrestler and an impressive kid.”
And for Sung, who still has Class L, Open and New England tournaments to come, he’s found a new source of strength in his teammates.
“There’s been great support from my teammates and everyone,” Sung said. “If it wasn’t for wrestling and all that support, I don’t know where I’d be right now.”