FORT MADISON — Mike Sayre hears the alarm go off, wipes the sleep from his eyes and rolls out of bed.
It isn’t quite as easy these days. Sayre, now 57, doesn’t move quite as well as he did in his prime. It takes a little longer to get loose, to wake up, to get ready for another day.
Especially when he looks out the window. It’s 5 a.m. on a bitterly cold Saturday. Sayre, a school teacher by day, is a high school wrestling official by night and every Saturday from December through February.
On this particular late December Saturday morning, Sayre is off to Fort Madison for the annual Fort Madison Invitational, a tournament he looks forward to every year. When you’ve been doing something for 37 years, there are certain places, people and events you look forward to. This is one of Sayre’s favorites.
“This has always been one of my favorite events. After you do this for a few years, there are certain tournaments you really look forward to, and this is one of them,” Sayre said. “A lot of it is the people you work with and the people you look forward to seeing. This has always been one of my favorites.”
On this Saturday, as Sayre leaves his home in Mediapolis at 7 a.m., he steps foot outside his front door to find a mixture of snow, rain, freezing rain and sleet coming down. Fortunately, Sayre has a four-wheel drive truck, which certainly will come in handy on this winter day. As he makes his way south of Burlington, he comes across a bad wreck. One truck in a ditch and an ambulance on the way. But neither snow nor sleet nor freezing rain will keep Sayre away from the tournament. After all, no officials, no tournament.
As Sayre pulls into the Fort Madison High School parking lot, it’s 7:40 a.m. and bus after bus pulls up to the door to drop off wrestlers and coaches.
At 8 a.m. it’s time for the mandatory weigh-ins and skin checks. As Sayre walks into the wrestling room for the 15-minute procedure, he is greeted by fellow officials Bob Donnolly, Mike Vantiger and Adam Hargrave. It’s still early, but never too early to engage in a little friendly banter.
After the weigh-ins and skin checks, Sayre and the other officials pile back into their vehicles for a trip across town to the local Hy-Vee deli for some breakfast.There, they trade barbs and stories, relaxing before the grueling five-hour day ahead.
Sayre takes it one step further. As they finish up breakfast and then again after they finish dressing in the locker room, Sayre pulls out his rules book and begins to brush up on situations that could crop up during the day.
One of Sayre’s favorites was the time a coach decided he didn’t want his wrestler to face a highly-ranked wrestler in the tournament. Instead of defaulting the match, the coach reported to the scorer’s table that his wrestler was forfeiting. That is until Sayre informed him that since he forfeited, his wrestler was done for the day. The rules can be tricky, so officials have to know them and the consequences they bring. In wrestling, everything happens in a sequence. The best officials are able to anticipate things before they happen.
“They always kid me about how I always look through the rules book, but weird things happen and there are exceptions to rules and you have to know those exceptions,” Sayre said. “You have to be able to anticipate where a move will end up or where the kids are going to end up. You have to be on the mat as soon as a kid goes to his back. You just have to have a feel for where a situation might take you.”
Sayre and company head to the gym at 9:55 a.m. and wrestling begins immediately after the national anthem. With four officials and four mats going most of the day, there isn’t much time for rest. Sayre is constantly on the go, up and down, back and forth, circling the mat in anticipation of where the action might go. It puts his body and his mind to the test. You have to be in shape to survive the grind.
“It’s taxing on your body. I don’t know how many times a day I go up and down following the action,” Sayre said. “I ride my stationary bike and lift weights. It’s stressful.
“I had a knee replacement surgery a few years ago and I know Bob Donnolly had the same surgery. Troy Sealy had both knees done. It makes a big difference.”
Sayre said you have to stay mentally sharp and focused solely on the match you are officiating. He has learned to block out everything else, including the fans and coaches.
“There are a lot of things going on out there. The officials need to be totally engulfed in the match they are officiating,” Sayre said. “I really don’t listen to coaches. I had one coach say to me after a match, ‘I told you this and I told you that.’ I looked at him and said, ‘I really don’t listen to you.’ Do we make mistakes? Sure we do. But you learn from your mistakes and you don’t make the same mistake again and hope the mistake doesn’t alter the outcome of the match. When I’m out there, my No. 1 priority is the safety of the wrestlers. My No. 2 priority is sportsmanship. I don’t want anyone to get hurt in any match I am officiating. I look out for the safety of the wrestlers first.
“I remember one time a long time ago up at Wapello I was officiating a match and John Siegle got mad at me for a call and he literally stomped a chair into the floor. He really messed up that folding chair. But for the most part, 99.9 percent of the kids are great and most of the coaches are great.”
Action continues through three rounds before a lunch break at 1 p.m. Sayre, Donnolly, Vantiger and Hargrave make their way to a classroom where a buffet is set up for officials and coaches. By this point, the officials are ready for a break. Sayre isn’t sure how many matches he’s called by that point, but it already has been a tiring day and the medal rounds are still to come.
One of the mats is shut down for the medal rounds, allowing two officials to work the championship matches — one lead official and one assistant. By 2 p.m. the finals start and go off without a hitch, ending at 3 p.m.
Sayre, exhausted by this time, heads off to the locker room for a quick shower and change of clothes. Then it’s off to a local establishment with Donnolly, Vantiger and Hargrave for a cold beverage and some food. The discuss the day’s events, their upcoming duals and tournaments and a few more tales. Then Sayre heads out the door for another adventurous drive back to Mediapolis.
Sayre loves officiating and giving back to the sport he has been involved with for nearly 50 years, But he is beginning to think about the future. He says maybe one more year, then it’s time to step aside. But the sport desperately needs young officials to step up and take the place of the older officials who are retiring.
“It’s getting to the point where maybe I’ll do it one more season. It’s very time consuming. I have a new granddaughter I want to see more,” Sayre said. “It’s I feel guilty if I give it up because I feel like I’m obligated to be there, but I’m going to have to quit one of these days. I don’t want to be one of those guys who people say should have gotten out of it a long time ago. Maybe it’s time to pass the baton to somebody else.”