Brothers in Arms
Wrestling: Damon Thomas forges relationships through trials of life and fires of competition
By Jordan Nailon
Family is important to Damon Thomas. So is wrestling.
You can tell that he takes wrestling seriously by his fastidious approach, and the unassailable results. You can sense his love for family by the frequency and tenor that he speaks of his own and by the ironclad relationships that he has fostered over the years with his cauliflower-eared kin on the mat.
Thomas is a kid who finished one win from placing at the 3A state tournament as a 126-pound freshman and then grew up to claim the sixth-place spot at 132 pounds in the 4A tournament his sophomore year. Last year, as a 138-pound junior, he finished runner-up at the Mat Classic in the 2A classification for the Bearcats. This year, as a tuned-up senior, Thomas is sporting a 43-2 record and he has his sights set squarely on a state title.
Thomas spent his first two years of high school at Mountain View in Vancouver before life’s indifference forced a family move north to Chehalis. He began his wrestling odyssey nine years ago in the Askeo International Mat Club in Vancouver. Thomas considers the club’s founder, Damon McPherson, to be a formative mentor, to the point of referring to McPherson as a “second dad.”
“He taught me the basis of wrestling and how to work hard. But he also taught me how to take that over into life,” said Thomas, who credits McPherson for keeping him out of trouble and for providing guidance that helped him to adjust to his new life north on I-5 in Bearcat country.
“He really helped me out and showed me how to take it all in,” said Thomas.
Thomas didn’t know exactly what he was walking into when he got to W.F. West. A full two classifications smaller than Mountain View, both his new school and new town were smaller than he was used to. Once Thomas got on the mat, though, he felt right at home and it didn’t take long for him to find his brothers in arms.
The first of his new Bearcat wrestling brethren to make an impression on Thomas was Michael Anderson. Anderson, who placed third last year as a junior at the Mat Classic at 152 pounds, insisted on locking up with Thomas day after day in a competitive arms race that has benefitted both wrestlers.
In fact, Thomas says his most memorable match came at the hands of Anderson a full four or five years before they were reunited at W.F. West.
“(Anderson) still has the bracket. He wound up beating me,” said Thomas with half of a laugh.
That history has helped to continuously fuel the two wrestlers’ fires through the doldrums of mid-winter practice time in the mat room. It turns out quite a bit of heat can be generated by the collision of two mighty forces who refuse to give an inch.
“Every time we wrestle in practice it goes into overtime and Rak (Coach Jamie Rakevich) tells us to stop because it winds up taking too long,” explained Thomas.
As far as practice problems go, that’s one that Rakevich is happy to have.
“Last year he brought a good spark. He was a new kid and we didn’t quite know what we had at first,” said Rakevich. “I think he brought competition into the room. He’s helped a lot of other guys get better too.”
Thomas said that helping out fellow wrestlers is one of the best parts of the wrestling culture at W.F West. As a senior, Thomas says that leadership role feels like second nature because of the example his mentors have set over the years.
“I actually learned more at W.F. West than at Mt. View…It’s more of a family here than having a bunch of kids out there that you don’t really know,” explained Thomas, who especially enjoys working with younger wrestlers and guys gunning to take over his weight class. “It’s actually pretty cool because you can see how well your team will be doing next year even when you’re not going to be there.”
Thomas learned early on how to hold his own against older, bigger and stronger opponents. He is a little brother after all, and he has learned plenty of hard knock lessons along the way from his big brother, Anthony, who graduated from Evergreen High School before wrestling a spell at Colorado State in Pueblo.
After nearly two years of coaching Thomas, Rakevich is fully convinced of his fortitude and pedigree.
“His club coaches in the past have taught him a lot and his parents have dragged him around, plus he’s got his older brother to look up to. Anytime you’ve got an older brother beating on you, it’s not a bad thing,” noted Rakevich.
This year Thomas is a favorite to bring home a state title from the dank streets of Tacoma to the Mint City. Although he has two losses this season, both have come to the same top tier foe, number one ranked Mason Eaglin of South Kitsap from the 4A ranks. Even then, one of those losses was a 7-5 overtime affair at the Hammerhead Invitational in Bremerton. Thomas isn’t losing sleep over those outlier matches.
Instead, Thomas considers his loss in last year’s state championship match to be the one that burns.
“That was the most heartbreaking loss I’ve had in my entire wrestling career. That really opened my eyes up to realize that there are other people out there who can beat me,” said Thomas, who replayed the match in his head ad nauseam since last February. Through that reflection, he has come to believe that he did not lose because of any physical or technical shortcomings. He was simply blinded by the light.
“I would have to say it’s just mental, because making it to the finals, I was more in the awe of making it to the state finals than really trying to wrestle it. I was caught up in the moment,” explained Thomas.
Rakevich thinks Thomas’ competitive streak may have gotten the best of him in the final match. Maybe it wasn’t the spotlight that blinded him, but the furious white fog of competition.
“On the mat he doesn’t get rattled. He might get down but he just puts his head down and competes,” said Rakevich. “That might have cost him a chance at a state title last year because he didn’t want to give up anything.”
Off the mat, Thomas comes off as thoughtful, well spoken, respectful and patient. He says he has come to enjoy his time at W.F. West, thanks in large part to the relationships he has developed with his teachers. That familiarity makes it easier to communicate and to ask for extra help in keeping up with course work when necessary.
Thomas knows that the road to wrestling glory does not go on forever and that the real world will come knocking eventually. He plans to have an education in hand when that day comes. He’s currently involved in the daunting college recruiting process and the attention proves that those in the know see the same potential in him that he intrinsically knows to exist. Oregon State University, Northern Idaho College, Grays Harbor College and Clackamas College are all currently in the running as possible destinations to continue his interlocking careers of wrestling and academia. A good run through the gauntlet of the Mat Classic might even broaden those horizons. When it’s all said and done, he hopes to attain a career in forestry or as a diesel mechanic while working as an assistant high school or club wrestling coach.
He doesn’t know where he’s going to wind up for school quite yet but he knows where he doesn’t want to go.
“I don’t want to get too far away from family because I saw my brother do that and what it did to him,” explained Thomas.
For at least the next few weeks though, you can expect that Thomas will be nearly single-minded in his focus to earn his spot on the top step on the Mat Classic championship podium. He has vowed to keep his approach focused to just one match at a time but admits to some excitement over the the prospect of traveling with a full team of his Bearcat grapple bros in order to make some noise inside the echoing concrete confines of the Tacoma Dome.
After clinching the Bearcat’s fourth league championship in five years on Thursday night with team a win over Aberdeen, Rakevich still doesn’t know who all will end up competing on the state stage. However, he has a good idea of what a good run through sub-regionals and regionals might look like come time for weigh-ins in Tacoma.
“If you can take 11 to the Dome then you are doing something right,” said Rakevich, who would be overjoyed to take additional Bearcats along if they can manage to earn a spot. “Once you get there, then anything can happen. Some guys get Dome-Fever and some guys look really good under the lights. You just never know.”