Mt. Edgecumbe High School wrestlers learn about healthy relationships

The Mt. Edgecumbe High School wrestling team. Emory Johnson helps hold up the poster. (Emily Russell, KCAW - Sitka)
The Mt. Edgecumbe High School wrestling team. Emory Johnson helps hold up the poster. (Photo by Emily Russell, KCAW – Sitka)

This fall, student wrestlers at Mt. Edgecumbe High School took part in a program called, ‘Coaching Boys into Men.’ The idea is to teach young players how to have healthy relationships even if, in the case of Mt. Edgecumbe, half of the wrestlers will grow up to be women.

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The entire student body of Mt. Edgecumbe, more than 400 students from over 100 villages across Alaska, is packed into the school’s gym for a pep rally – a rally that’s about more than just the regional wrestling tourney.

The Mt. Edgecumbe wrestling team is being recognized for completing the ‘Coaching Boys into Men’ program, an effort to promote healthy relationships and reduce abuse and sexual assault.

Emory Johnson, a four-year senior from Bethel, is one of the wrestlers. Johnson is a girl, and despite competing in a sport historically geared towards boys, Johnson isn’t shy about her strength.

“My mom never really wanted me to join because she doesn’t like the way the guys beat on the girls.” Johnson laughed. “I’m like, ‘Well, it can go both ways,’”

Two student wrestlers sign the poster after completing the ‘Coaching Boys into Men’ program. (Photo by Emily Russell, KCAW - Sitka)
Two student wrestlers sign the poster after completing the ‘Coaching Boys into Men’ program. (Photo by Emily Russell, KCAW – Sitka)

Johnson is one of more than 20 girls on the team of over 40 wrestlers. Girls have wrestled here for over a decade thanks to their coach, Mike Kimber.

“I’m at teacher at Mt. Edgecumbe,” Kimber explained. “I teach Japanese, English, and a few other classes and I’m the wrestling coach. I’ve been the wrestling coach here for 17 years at Mt. Edgecumbe.”

Kimber himself is a graduate of Mt. Edgecumbe. When he was a wrestler, he said his coach worked with the athletes both on and off the mat. It’s that mission, to develop not just a good athlete but a good person, that inspired Kimber to join the ‘Coaching Boys into Men’ program.

Whether you’re a girl or a boy, everybody needs this information,” Julia Smith urged. Smith is the prevention director for Sitkans Against Family Violence.

Smith introduced the program to teachers and coaches at Mt. Edgecumbe a year and a half ago.

“And a lot of them asked, ‘I don’t have all boys on my team, can I still use this?’ So, we called the national folks at Futures Without Violence and they said, ‘Yes, go ahead and use it,’” explained Smith.

The program spans an entire season, with one 15-minute lesson each week. The topics include communicating boundaries, digital disrespect, and the importance of consent. The lesson on consent was the only one Coach Kimber chose to teach separately.

“We kept the boys on the mat and the girls went to another room and did that [lesson],” Kimber said.

Mt. Edgecumbe’s wrestling team was the only one in Sitka to take part in the program this year, but Julia Smith said she’s trying to change that. It’s already caught on in other Southeast communities like Juneau.

The basketball team in Ketchikan has also used the program,” Smith added. “The basketball team in Kake has used the program, so we’re really trying to build momentum and get this going throughout our state and have all coaches use this as a tool for reiterating the things they’re already teaching.”

That’s the beauty of the program. The messenger is one that’s usually trusted and the message is one that’s critical for adulthood. Wrestler Emory Johnson gets that.

“Yeah, it’s called “[Coaching] Boys into Men,’ but the questions are still the same,” Johnson said.It’s just, ‘What does respect mean to you?’ I mean, respect means respect to everybody.”

And that’s a lesson that every Mt. Edgecumbe wrestler now knows well.

Mt. Edgecumbe will host the Region V wrestling tournament this weekend, with matches on both Friday and Saturday.

Emily Russell is the voice of Alaska morning news as Alaska Public Media’s Morning News Host and Producer.

Originally from the Adirondacks in upstate New York, Emily moved to Alaska in 2012. She skied her way through three winters in Fairbanks, earning her Master’s degree in Northern Studies from UAF.

Emily’s career in radio started in Nome in 2015, reporting for KNOM on everything from subsistence whale harvests to housing shortages in Native villages. She then worked for KCAW in Sitka, finally seeing what all the fuss with Southeast, Alaska was all about.

Back on the road system, Emily is looking forward to driving her Subaru around the region to hike, hunt, fish and pick as many berries as possible. When she’s not talking into the mic in the morning, Emily can be found reporting from the peaks above Anchorage to the rivers around Southcentral.

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