HIGH SCHOOL WRESTLING
Wrestler's father has timing down
Mike Mullen strode proudly into the center of the wrestling ring as he was introduced to a wave of spirited applause and cheering fans. The 258-pound senior Leilehua High School wrestler sported his letterman's jacket and puffed out his chest with an unmistakable sense of pride and confidence.
As Mullen tossed the jacket aside and prepared to defend his Oahu Interscholastic Association title in the 285-pound weight class, it seemed as if nothing could wipe the intimidating, stone-cold expression of focus and pure will off his sweat-soaked face.
Despite giving up a good five to 10 pounds to his opponent, Miles Tynanes-Perez of Campbell, Mullen's conditioning paid off.
The smaller, agile wrestler established control atop Tynanes-Perez and locked his legs to prevent any chance of escape. After dominating the three 2-minute rounds, Mullen was awarded the 7-4 victory to cap his undefeated OIA campaign.
"I had to do a lot of running and lifting," Mullen said of his intense training regimen, which includes long-distance running and repetition of technique. "I just worked a lot of conditioning because to outlast a guy like that, it's hard to do. Everybody I wrestled has been so hard; the guy I just wrestled is probably one of the best in the state. Just to beat him means a lot."
After the match, Mullen received his championship medal and, while exhausted, showed no signs of it. But the tough-guy image and "I can take on anybody" aura quickly melted away when he saw and embraced his father, Larry Mullen. As father and son locked in a big bear hug, it was clear that there was a deeper, more important story line playing out that transcended anything that had just taken place on the nearby mats.
It turns out that Larry had flown halfway across the world from Iraq -- where he is serving a tour of duty in the U.S. Army as a member of the 25th Infantry Division based at Schofield Barracks -- to use his precisely timed 2-week-long rest and relaxation break to watch his son wrestle.
"It's so emotional to see him come back from Iraq," Mike said, trying to hold back the tears. "The last time he came back, he got here just in time to see (last year's state tournament). It's just amazing because he got to come back and see me wrestle."
With the "R&R" break, Larry was not only able to see his son claim OIA gold, but will be here this weekend as Mike competes in the Chevron/HHSAA State Wrestling Championships which get under way tomorrow and conclude Saturday at the Blaisdell Arena.
"Coming home from Iraq, I came (just) for this," Larry said. "It was a choice I had to make: 'Do I come home for this or (Mike's) graduation?' I left it up to him and he said, 'You know, you've coached me since I was 9 years old. Graduation, we can film and send it to you, I want you here for wrestling.' "
Larry made it home just in time to watch his son wrestle in the state tourney last season, but Mike made an early exit in the second preliminary round with an injury. So this year, he made sure to be here for both of Mike's final shots at high school competition.
"I came back from (being stationed in) Afghanistan last year to walk in to states and I was in uniform. I got off the aircraft and went straight to the Blaisdell, but I didn't want that to happen this year," Larry said. "I was able to work it so I could get home for this tournament, and being sure that I would get here in time. I wanted us to have a day or two together before the tournament and it's just been unbelievable. He's done things and you just sit there and say, 'Wow, how did a 250-pound kid do that?' "
While Larry couldn't watch Mike's regular-season matches in person, he was kept in the loop with regular videotapes showcasing his son's latest victories.
"Week in and week out, I would get videotapes from my wife of tournaments," Larry said. "So, I was able to watch him progress through the season. And he went undefeated which is unbelievable."
For both father and son, the anticipation of their time spent together was a major motivating factor in their lives. Mike worked as hard as ever, both in the classroom and in practice. Conversely, Larry's anticipation of the trip home made his stay in the war torn desert a bit easier to handle.
"We were e-mailing each other back and forth, and it was really both of our motivations," Larry said. "I'd e-mail him and say 'Look, only seven days and I'm on the plane,' and he was like 'Well I'm keeping my grades up Dad, and (training) hard every day.' It was back and forth, and back and forth. It was keeping us together."
Winning a state title would go a long way toward helping Mike attain his goal of wrestling in college. While he has yet to receive any scholarship offers, he got a letter of interest from his school of choice, The Citadel. He is leaning toward pursuing a major in either the field of science or physical fitness.
As Mike prepares for the state tournament, he knows that the road to his ultimate goal will be anything but smooth. In addition to familiar OIA foes, he will challenge and be challenged by the best wrestlers hailing from the neighbor islands and the Interscholastic League of Honolulu, including ILH champion Mykenna Ikehara of Kamehameha; runner-up Ana Tuiasosopo of Saint Louis; and third-place finisher Sani Fuimaono of Punahou.
"It's hard to say (where my toughest competition will come from) because I don't know a lot of the guys who will be in my bracket," Mike said.
He is hoping that the lessons learned from the tutelage of his father and Leilehua wrestling coach Richie Cabinian, combined with the motivation of his dad's presence in the arena, will give him the boost he needs to surpass his career-best second-place finish in the state tournament as a sophomore.
"This will probably be the most important thing I've ever done throughout my wrestling career," Mike said. "If I could win states, it would mean so much. That's what he came back for."