WINSTED >> Years ago, Doug Smith wrestled for Gilbert, joined the Air Force and met his wife Lisa while stationed in Texas.
It was the start of one of the premiere wrestling families in the Northwest Corner, maybe the whole state.
Two of their five boys, Alek and Andrew, were born in Texas.
The Smiths moved back to Connecticut, where Doug’s GI benefits helped him through UConn with a degree in business and finance, magna cum laude.
In a back-handed kind of way, the focus to achieve high academic honors at UConn might just have started with wrestling.
“I wasn’t any fantastic wrestler, but it was something I enjoyed and, by the time I got in the Air Force, wished I’d applied myself to more,” he says.
“It’s one of the things I think about now. Even if it’s just one kid, that’s what I want to impart: If you can give 100 percent to one thing, including wrestling, it carries over.”
First UConn, then three more boys, Bailey, Logan and Liam.
Every one of them, including 18-year-old Bailey, a special-needs kid with Down’s Syndrome, is a wrestler, even though, in Bailey’s case, it’s rough-housing with his brothers.
Every one of them, including Doug and Lisa, show marked signs of giving 100 percent.
It started in Texas.
“I was an avid mountain biker when the two oldest were little,” says Doug. “Lisa and I were active and we always encouraged them to be active.”
Back in Winsted, activity became more organized. Doug signed on as a youth soccer coach, like many dads do, to help coach five-year-old Alek. Doug stayed with that for 10 years.
Two years after he began as a soccer coach, Smith also started a youth wrestling program at Pearson Middle School.
It made him a natural choice for long-time Gilbert wrestling coach Jim Rollins, when Rollins decided to retire before the start of the 2001-2002 season.
By then, Alek was already becoming an experienced wrestler. Thanks to his dad’s program at Pearson, Alek started on the mat at seven; by the time he was 10, he was wrestling in tournaments every Sunday.
The work paid off; by his senior year, 2011, Alek was third in Class S at 135 pounds, fifth in the State Open.
Alek was the first of the boys to expose Lisa to the dual role of coach’s wife and wrestler’s mom.
“I owe a lot to my wife,” says Doug, in the kind of statement many coaches can make. “From Thanksgiving until March, she holds down the fort and we pass in the night from when I get home to change my clothes for wrestling practice.”
Lisa’s mom role might be more complex: “I’m one of the proudest Moms around,” she smiles. “Wrestling, in my opinion, is the toughest sport for the commitment and drive you need.”
She joins Doug in the nurturing side of the sport, especially in the losses.
“You learn that a loss can only help you get better in a sport in which you can’t raise your hand and ask for a substitute,” she says.
On the other hand, it never stops hurting.
“When I see one of my sons lose, the feeling is intense because I know what went into it before they walked onto the mat. I know the blood, the sweat and the tears it took to achieve the levels they have.”
There aren’t a lot of losses for the Smith kids – or for many Gilbert wrestlers.
When Doug took the Gilbert coaching job, he looked for an assistant who could fill his gaps.
“I loved the sport and knew the sport, but I wasn’t a great wrestler,” he said. “I needed a technician. Dan Langer was a two-time state champion at Canton who had just moved to Winsted. We talked; we shared the same philosophy and we’ve been together ever since.
As the smallest wrestling school in Connecticut, the Gilbert problem isn’t skill, it’s numbers.
Even when Gilbert won the Berkshire League Championship, in 2008, the Yellowjackets had just 16 wrestlers on the team, but managed to fill all 14 weight classes for a 24-1 regular-season record and third place in Class S.
Alek wrestled on that team as a 112-pound freshman.
On the Smith team, Andrew, now 19, came next, wrestling for just two years, then came Bailey.
“He wrestles with Doug and the other boys down in the basement. They treat him like just one of the brothers. Our family cannot do without him,” says Lisa.
The bonds, especially with Bailey, offer a softer side to Logan, who committed himself to wrestling in sixth grade and worked himself to a sixth place in Class S as a 145-pound freshman last year. This year, at 9-1, he won his weight class at the Derby Invitational for the second year in a row.
He and Liam, a 14-year-old eighth grader who’s beginning to win trophies of his own, wrestle year-round at Granby’s Fisheye Wrestling Club.
Sport and family complete a fuller circle for the Smiths than most.
Doug’s coaching philosophy would apply anywhere: “I try to teach kids life skills – hard work, dedication. What you put in it is what you get out of it. Beyond high school, the skills I teach can apply to a career, a relationship, anything.”
For Lisa, the intensity and focus required of a wrestler is part of her life.
“Does the intensity rub off? Yeah, I think it does, because I think you learn from the kids,” she says. “They give me that motivation. A couple of years ago, I lost an election. I was one of the lowest vote getters. If I hadn’t gotten back up, I wouldn’t be mayor today.”
“Coaching is kind of like life with your own kids,” says Doug. “They grow up fast; coaching is the same way. I can’t believe it’s been 13 years. I’ve enjoyed the past, I enjoy it now and I look forward to enjoying the future.”