February 11, 2011

Steve Solloway: The dream that finally took hold

GORHAM - He heard the quick tweet of the whistle and the slap of the wrestling official's hand on the mat. Rick Chipman had just pinned his Coast Guard Academy opponent.

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Rick Chipman, left, was one of the state's top wrestlers at Mt. Ararat. Of course, that was more than 20 years ago. Now he's competing at USM, and learning to win all over again.

Jason Johns/University of Southern Maine

It was his first victory on a wrestling mat in nearly 24 years. For a moment he didn't feel 41 years old.

Chipman got to his feet. He had come a long way, looking for a sign that he wasn't foolish or lost. Here it was.

"I really didn't know what I was going to be capable of," said Chipman before walking through the doors to the University of Southern Maine's wrestling room. "Now I could say, 'OK, I made the right decision.' "

He is believed to be the oldest athlete to compete in a varsity sport at USM. A paramedic for the Bath Fire Department, a part-time contractor, full-time husband and father of a 3-week-old son, Chipman somehow decided last summer he had time to pursue an oft-delayed dream.

He enrolled at USM as a freshman. His major is political science. He juggled four classes last semester, earning a 3.74 grade-point average and a letter telling him he made the dean's list. He's got another four classes and a lab this semester.

I caught up with him early Thursday night in the office of his 35-year-old coach, Joe Pistone. Chipman was up at 4 a.m. with his newborn, then worked five hours painting. An hour drive to the Gorham campus and a 60- to 90-minute nonstop workout was next.

Then it was back to Bath for a shift as a paramedic. "All my classes are on Monday and Wednesday. I find the time."

Pistone was recruiting Chipman's now 20-year-old son, Spencer, a touted 160-pound Morse wrestler, when dad entered the picture. His career spanned 1985 through 1987 for Coach Dennis Bishop at Mt. Ararat. Like his son, Rick Chipman was a state medalist. Spencer Chipman has decided not to pursue a college wrestling career. His father has unfinished business.

"I loved wrestling and I missed the competition," said the elder Chipman. Simple as that, or so it would seem.

Wrestling is a grueling and unforgiving sport, physically and mentally. Chipman wanted no favors and Pistone believes in treating all his wrestlers equally. Even if he kept calling his senior wrestler Mr. Chipman for much of the first semester. Pistone stopped when he realized Chipman hated the title.

Pistone's wrestlers didn't know what to make of Chipman. "They're leaving their parents' home to be on their own in college and all of a sudden there's a father figure in their lives who's not their coach," said Pistone. Now Chipman is just another guy sitting with his teammates on bus trips and getting room assignments.

On the mat, the adjustment has been difficult. Wrestling at 165 pounds -- he dropped 35 pounds since beginning training -- Chipman was on his back frequently in the first semester. In high school he was one of the top wrestlers of his weight class. Through November and December last semester, he found himself overpowered, sometimes getting pinned in less than a minute.

"My pride has taken a beating. Technique-wise I'm a much better wrestler." He has a decision to go with his pin. Second semester, his bouts have been much more competitive. At 41 he's a quick study.

"Rick's extremely receptive to the strategies and tactics you need to be competitive at this level," says Pistone. "He's in a stacked weight class. It's the toughest."

At college meets there's a draw for the order of weight classes. Meaning the lightweights don't necessarily start first. By chance, Chipman has frequently wrestled near the end of the round where his outcome decides the team winner.

"I sing to him," said Pistone, breaking out a crooner's voice. "It's on you again, it's on your shoulders."

Pistone admits he and his returning wrestlers were skeptical. To prepare for the intensity of seven minutes of college wrestling, workouts are exhausting. Could Chipman keep up?

He could. He was a firefighter before becoming a paramedic. Still, he enlisted a strength and conditioning coach to prepare him. He had coached wrestlers at Bath's middle school, which meant working on the mat, teaching moves. But the sophistication of college wrestling moves was something new.

Chipman never attended college. He has all of his eligibility, which means three more seasons. His goal is to be on the mat for Senior Day. His newborn, named Tichon, would be 3 years old. Chipman would like to give him a memory.

He's given the rest of us an example.

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:



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