If you passed Zach Lewis in the grocery store, you wouldn't peg him for a state wrestling champ.
"Until he took his shirt off," Rich Cox, Lewis's coach said of the R.S. Central sophomore who recently brought home top honors in his 113-pound weight class.
Cox and Lewis talked wrestling and sports stories recently.
Lewis had to win four matches at the state level and four at the regional level. He credited hard and consistent work.
Coach Cox said, "You have to work hard and work smart." He said the lessons his wrestlers learn apply to all of life. When asked for an example, he said, "Life may put you on your back. At that point, you have to decide. Are you gonna lie there or fight back? Getting through life takes a lot of fight. Fight hard. Life's tough."
He agreed that might make a good bumper sticker, "Fight hard! Life's tough!"
The tough fighter who just brought home the state championship is the son of Cary and Margaret Lewis. Cary maintains copiers and Margaret works for Trelleborg, the Rutherfordton industry that makes coatings.
"They're proud of me. They tell me a lot that they're proud of me," Lewis said.
He began wrestling in third grade with Strong and Courageous, a Hendersonville club run by Norman Osteen, who also coaches the Gardner-Webb University wrestling team. Cox wrestled for Osteen at GW.
Starting in third grade is not unusual.
"One of my seniors, Loki Ryan, started at four years old. He's getting ready to graduate and will probably wrestle in college."
Cox added, "I love the sport, but what I love most is watching kids grow up." He's been at the post for 18 years, having coached for two years at Shelby High School.
Another R.S. Central graduate, Caleb Spears, just finished fifth in the national junior college competition in Iowa. Two other wrestling standouts, Austin Neal and Roman Rodriguez, along with Spears recently returned to the Central campus to visit current wrestlers and Coach Cox.
Cox said he emphasizes technique and conditioning for his wrestlers and Lewis said that has been the key to his success. Lewis said, "It feels good to win. It feels bad to lose."
Girls also wrestle at the high school level and in current programs, they wrestle boys, but Cox said efforts are underway to create all-girl events at the regional and state levels. There are no girls among the nearly 30 Central wrestlers, but one eighth grade girl is looking to move up next year.
Among the sports stories that peppered the interview was a riff on Sara McMann, the first U.S. woman wrestler to win an Olympic medal in 2004. She had wrestled at McDowell High in Marion and beat most of the boys she took on. McMann also wrestled with Strong and Courageous.
Cox smiled to recall the story of Michael Jordan not making the varsity basketball team his sophomore year in high school.
"Unlike a lot of parents who want to blame the coaches, his mom said, 'You must not be working hard enough.' He started six a.m. workouts and turned it around. So many times it is the attitude of the parents that makes the difference," Cox said.
Jordan ended up being one of, if not the best player in the history of the game.
Cox said, "I love sports stories because they are life stories. So many people whine because they aren't making enough money or whatever. Just work harder and figure it out."
Serious injuries are few among Cox's wrestlers. "Kids do get hurt because it is combat, but we don't wrestle live a lot. Mostly we work on technique and conditioning. We work a lot on improvement."
Lewis says he plans to win another state championship next year through hard work. Next year is his junior year, so potentially he could win two more state titles. Colleges will begin talking to him next year. He hopes to attend college on a wrestling scholarship.
Cox said both N.C. State and Chapel Hill have strong wrestling programs. He also had high praise for programs at Campbell and App State.
Is there a substantial difference between competing at the Division 1 and Division 2 levels?
"Oh yes," Cox said. Having attended regional matches at both levels, Cox said, "If you're going to be an All-American at a Division 1 school, you are truly among the elite."
Along with his wife, Renee, Cox has two sons, Caleb, 11, and Timothy, 7. Both boys wrestle with a local club program, Real Life Wrestling.
The real life lessons Cox has learned and teaches include, "You can't impact what other people are gonna do. You can only impact yourself."
The impacts Lewis has had on himself include excellent shape after rigorous conditioning. When he faced opponents from across North Carolina in the Greensboro championships, that rigor paid off. He beat four of the best wrestlers at state after beating four of the best at regional. That ain't no small potatoes.
And if you pass a quiet, unassuming teen with an open face and an easy smile in a grocery store aisle, take a second look. There might just be a state champ in that shirt.
Contact Pat Jobe at email@example.com