Networking, Half-Nelson Style

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They say there’s no “I” in team. But there’s no “I” in wrestlers either, so it seems that the same selfless attitude implied by the former could be applied to the latter. And while that’s certainly true of the organization Wrestlers in Business Network Southwest Florida Chapter (WIBN), a group of former scholastic wrestlers and supporters who together foster interest in the sport as well as network with and support each other in business, the reason they have such a strong bond is that they know what it’s like to be alone on the mat against an opponent. It’s isolating. It’s competitive. And it’s a glaring spotlight on personal commitment. For the people who’ve gone to the mat, there’s a camaraderie that bridges all divides. And it makes for good business acumen.

We touched based with the local chapter’s chairman, Vincent Fantegrossi (the former CEO of food companies such as Cape Cod Potato Chips, Richelieu Foods and Back to Nature), to ask how the sport created such a bond and how the local chapter helps its members.


What is it about wrestling that makes this such a tight community?

I think many activities create their own subculture, whether it be in the arts or sports, etc.—whenever there is a group of likeminded people. And this certainly is the case in wrestling, but I believe in wrestling it goes deeper than most because it is such a demanding sport physically and emotionally … There is a respect and bonding that takes place when you meet a fellow wrestler. You know what they have gone through. You are on the mat on your own. You have to be disciplined to get yourself to that peak level. It’s not the will to win, but the will to prepare to win that matters. You can play a lot of sports and go through the motions and you may do OK, but in wrestling, if you want to excel, it’s about how much weightlifting do you do on your own, how much you focus, weight management, etc. It’s about finding the right healthy balance. You have to do that on your own. And even though it’s a very popular sport, you feel as though you’re part of a niche.


Talk a bit about what WIBN does for its members/new members?

What are the benefits? The Wrestlers In Business Network’s purpose is to do two things primarily: to help young wrestlers transition from young athletes to beginning careers in their chosen field [whatever that may be]; and to help former wrestlers advance their own careers and advance their businesses. This could be done in many ways but we’re encouraging people to hire wrestlers. We are going to a First Watch in Fort Myers and doing a card exchange to hire one another to do business. And even though we are just one year old, we have a nice array of members, from teachers, coaches, members of law enforcement, pilots, bankers, medical professionals, and so forth. We just had an event where we brought in world champion David Taylor to speak. And in the afternoon he ran a clinic free of charge for any kids who wanted to come. The great byproduct is that as we have these events and there are profits, 100 percent is being invested back into Southwest Florida wrestling. We are also helping a coach sponsor a camp he is having over the summer. In addition, we had a local team in need of support, so we bought headgear. Actually, we called a supplier to place an order and they just gave it to us. Right now, we are putting together an appropriate protocol for local coaches who have specific needs to come to us. We are putting together a leadership council that teaches coaches how to run their teams like a business. The idea is that you have a lot of coaches who are great at coaching the sport, but do they know who to go out and get sponsorships?


How did the local chapter get started?

Mike Moyer, the national director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association, approached a number of us here in Southwest Florida and asked if we’d be willing to get together and form a chapter. Mike has a wide network of former wrestlers and coaches. We now have north of 40 members and it’s growing. The recent event had more than 100 attendees. It goes back to the fact Mike is a great ambassador to the sport and he stays in touch with anybody who’s remotely connected to it. I had wrestled a bit in high school, but I sort of drifted away from the sport. Then my son independently got involved and through that process I met Mike and we stayed in touch. Also, we have one of the greatest wrestlers and greatest coaches of all time, Dan Gable, coming down here every winter from Iowa. [He’s an] Olympic gold medalist, world gold medalist and three-time NCAA Div. 1 National Champion. Mike had him come and speak with us and when you have that kind of guy who will do anything for the sport. Well, here we are.


Are there women in the sport?

Women’s wrestling and girls wrestling are actually the fastest growing segments of the sport today. There are quite a number of colleges that have women’s teams now and a lot of high schools as well. I mean it probably started 25-30 years ago, but I personally feel that is very good for the sport. And membership to WIBN is open to women. (The chapter has a female member currently and sees a large number of women attend its events.)


How does being a part of the sport of wrestling help in the world of business? Is there a shared set of values that wrestling instills?

I’m a firm believer that any extra curricular activity helps prepare students for a career in business, whether that’s baseball, football, acting in a school play, anything. But I personally believe wrestling brings it to another level again because in order to excel in that sport it demands a discipline unlike any other. A former wrestler and a very successful businessman gave a speech recently and said that being a “not very good wrestler” was the hardest thing he ever did in his life. And he said that if he could get through that, he could get through anything. It may not be the same as the military, but the premise is that you don’t have to be a great athlete for those disciplines to transition to business. And you learn more from losses than from wins. I think wrestling brings it out. There is another expression: sport doesn’t build character, it exposes character. And in a sport like wrestling you’ll know it because you are on your own.


Do you still watch matches?

I’ve gone to a number of high school matches around here and I get to the NCAA [Championships]. The National Tournament is six sessions over three days. All sessions immediately sell out. They get 90,000 attendees. Cities love hosting the NCAA Wrestling Championships because it’s not for one game or two—they have six sessions, which means multiple nights in hotels, multiple meals that are off hours. I was talking to The Capital Grille manager in Pittsburgh this year and he said that due to the timing of the sessions, it was a total bonus for us to have this place packed at 5:30 p.m. I just wish I got the Big 10 Network on TV here in Naples because that’s a great one for watching matches.


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