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The Coach from Amarillo

A deaf wrestling coach inspires girls to bring out the best in themselves

His “girls” call him “Coach Tank.” In the small classroom on a cool morning in early March, Scott Tankersley, a teacher of American history and coach of the girls’ wrestling team at Caprock High School in Amarillo, stands out in his bright orange T-shirt. Last year, the big man with the moustache and the strong hands led his girls to victory in the 2007 state championships in Austin, the fourth straight title for the Lady Longhorns. And he did it with hardly a word.

Tankersley is deaf. “To understand him, you really have to open your ears and listen,” says Maci Alvarado, a 17-year-old senior at Caprock. Tankersley uses PowerPoint as a teaching aid, but he also uses his voice. “It’s a deaf voice, but the students get used to it,” he says.

“We also watch his lips to read them,” says Alvarado, who describes herself as “a pretty nice girl unless you make me mad.” She was one of the best wrestlers in Tankersley’s Caprock High School team during the 2006-07 season and took second place overall at the state championships.

“Coach Tank is like our father pretty much,” she says while standing in the black and orange mat room in the gym. On the wall, a large piece of graffiti that reads “Caprock wrestling” marks the turf.

“We call it the ghetto because Coach usually goes to out-of-school suspension to pick up kids, who generally are troublemakers,” says Stephanea Hignight, another Caprock wrestler. “He teaches them to control their anger and take it out on the mat. All the girls on the team had their problems and obstacles in life.”

Alvarado’s biological mother is in prison. The teenager herself has had problems following the rules. Hignight is homeless and has also been in trouble. Several girls on the team have been in jail. “These girls mean everything to me,” says Tankersley with a deep laugh and with Alvarado’s help. Coach Tank is the broad shoulder she can lean on, while waiting for her mom to come out of prison. And she is the sweet voice interpreting his broken syllables during the interview with this reporter.

Tankersley, who lost his hearing because of a viral infection at age 3, attended the Regional Education Program for the Deaf in Amarillo until the ninth grade. Then he transferred to the regular education program at Caprock High School.

He started the girls wrestling program at Caprock in 1998 with Tori Adams, one of his students at the time. Adams is now 25. She lives in Colorado Springs, where she is training to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. “I wrestled in middle school,” she says in a phone interview. “I wanted to keep wrestling in high school. Coach Tankersley asked me to come up with enough girls to make a team. We ended up with cheerleaders, a basketball player, street fighters, gang members and Carmella, a deaf girl.”

Carmella was tough, Tankersley recalls. “During a duel against our archrival, Palo Duro, the match came down to her. She got hurt in the last period.” The coach explains that with about 25 seconds left in the match, he figured out the other coach’s strategy by reading his lips and body language, then explained in sign language to Carmella how to counter what the other wrestler might do. She won, giving Caprock the victory. “Many coaches hear what the opposing teams are yelling at each other, I just have to read lips,” he adds.

“Wrestlers never whine.” “Go hard or go home.” The walls of the mat room are full of signs reminding the teenage wrestlers that life is all about determination and perseverance. On one of the signs, there is a long list of exercises: 100 Hindu squats, 50 Hindu push-ups, 50 negative squats, 30 negative push-ups, etc. “That is part of our workout,” Alvarado says about what looks like the symbolic price these girls have to pay to create opportunities for themselves.

Tankersley’s impact is not limited to his grueling regimen of exercise. “Coach Tank is incredible,” Adams says. “Whatever you do after you leave Caprock, you cannot forget the man. He had a motivating and spiritual influence on me. At the 2004 Olympic trials, I flew him in and had him in my corner for motivational purposes.

“People say he had to overcome a lot because he is deaf,” the four-time state champion adds. “But those saying that do not understand the man. Coach Tank does not see his deafness as a problem.”

“It is just a speed bump,” Tankersley says. The man has never been much for self-pity. “I had to overcome obstacles,” he adds. “I translate that into a no-excuse philosophy—I try to impress on these girls to look for the solution, not the problem. And wrestling is a sport in which these girls can excel and take pride.”

About 5,000 high school girls wrestled nationwide last year compared to 250,000 teenage boys. Texas is one of the few states where high schools have female teams. Tankersley has an idea why this sport is so popular among girls at Caprock: “Regardless of their background, the girls all tell me that wrestling has brought out the best in them.”

As a working-class girl with an unconventional background, Alvarado found a way out through sports. Thanks to wrestling and Tankersley, she says she achieved stability in her life. Since that day in March when I first spoke with her, she has graduated and received a college scholarship based on her athletic performance. Hignight’s life will take her away from the never-ending plains of the Panhandle. The tough, petite blonde plans to join the Air Force.

Coach Tank will not leave the orange and black world of Caprock High School. He is working on a book called The Seven Dynamics of Winning. Ask him what they are, and he will name a few such as edge, enthusiasm and winning attitude.

In Colorado Springs, Tori Adams recently earned her bachelor’s in psychology. She is now working on her master’s in sport psychology. “Coach Tank steered me in that direction,” she says. She will try to fulfill her Olympic dream next year and plans to fly him in for the trials. Just to have him in her corner.

Jean-Cosme Delaloye is a Swiss journalist based in Brooklyn, where he covers U.S. politics and U.N. affairs. He visits Texas whenever possible.