The storied North Idaho College wrestling program has hit a number of milestones in its 43-year history, including 13 national championships.
But one achievement away from the mat has coach Pat Whitcomb almost as excited as if his team won another title: Wednesday morning his wrestling team handed out its 10,000th book to a Coeur d’Alene first-grader.
The program was launched in 2000 and later named in honor of Shirley Parker, the late wife of Parker Toyota founder Doug Parker. A supporter of NIC wrestling and of reading, she died in 2002.
The goal is to give each first-grader in the Coeur d’Alene School District a book. To achieve that, NIC wrestlers go to all 10 Coeur d’Alene elementary schools each year, staggering the visits throughout the school year.
The team’s final visit was to Sorensen Elementary on Wednesday, in the classrooms of Holly Weymouth and Maureen Woitas. NIC wrestlers Ryan Zumwalt and Jake Mason, previous teammates at University High School, read parts of Laura Numeroff’s book “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” to the kids.
Mason was an All-American two years ago when he placed seventh at nationals at 165 pounds. He redshirted last year. Zumwalt placed third in the nation last winter at 157. Both return in the fall and hope to lead NIC to another national title.
At the beginning of each year, Whitcomb orders about 700 age-appropriate books through Scholastic Reader that the team passes out at each stop. Sometimes the team schedules readings in towns where it wrestles in tournaments.
Whitcomb did his own reading two weeks ago while on a recruiting trip to his hometown, Grand Rapids, Mich.
He said wrestlers are often apprehensive about their first visits to schools each year.
“As soon as they do it once they love it,” the coach said. “Then they’re always asking, ‘When are we going out again?’ ”
One former NIC wrestler, Tyson Springer, took the idea with him to Dickinson State University in North Dakota, where he’s now an assistant coach.
The Shirley Parker Reading Program received national attention when it was featured in a July 2003 edition of Time magazine.
“We started the program as a way of getting our guys out into the community and giving back,” Whitcomb said. “I just think that anything we can do to give back is great because the community supports us so well. As long as I’m in charge we’re going to continue to do this.”
On Wednesday, Zumwalt read to Weymouth’s class while Mason read to Woitas’ class. It’s the first time either wrestler had participated in a reading.
The kids are encouraged to take their book home and read it to their family.
“I was real comfortable with it because my fiancée’s mom is a fifth-grade teacher, and I’ve been in her classroom before,” said Zumwalt, who will marry his high school sweetheart this summer. “I really had a lot of fun.”
Said Mason, “Those little kids are funny – especially the things they say.”
NIC head trainer Randy Boswell frequently accompanies Whitcomb and the wrestlers to the readings.
When they were done reading, “We asked if the kids knew anything about wrestling,” Boswell said. “One little boy said, ‘My mommy and daddy wrestle.’ Needless to say, we moved on to the next question as soon as possible.”
The wrestling team holds an annual fundraiser to support the program, collecting pledges toward their completion of an eight-mile mountain climb near Hope, Idaho. The event typically raises $1,000 toward the purchase of books.