Coach helps build stronger wrestlers, people

Hood River Valley assistant wrestling coach Jeff MacKay is rarely the tallest guy in any room.

He doesn’t have the bellowing voice or in-your-face tenacity of head coach Mark Brown. He doesn’t possess the intimidating stature of fellow assistant Jess Flem. But what he does hold in his 5-foot, 4-inch frame is more wrestling experience than anyone else in the valley.

You wouldn’t know unless you asked him, though. The former national champion, junior national champion and World University Champion doesn’t boast much about his accomplishments. He chooses, instead, to lead by example.

“Jeff has made a huge impact on our program over the past six years,” Brown said of MacKay, who also placed third in Greco-Roman at the 1985 Grand Prix de Internationale — a world-renowned freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling tournament that attracts competitors from 27 nations.

“His dedication is what I admire most about him. He is always there for the team and for the wrestlers, and the kids really like him. His wrestling experience is invaluable, but what I find most amazing about Jeff is his loyalty to the wrestlers at HRV,” Brown said.

But for MacKay, coaching wrestling is not a job; it’s his passion. And that makes it even easier to show up to the mat every day.

“I like contributing to the community through the sport of wrestling,” said MacKay, a former San Francisco resident who is now a manager at Big Winds. “I hope I can continue to do the same two jobs as long as I’m here, which will likely be a long time.”

MacKay has a history of being a wrestling advocate everywhere he has lived. One of his most admirable achievements over the years was the role he played in establishing the first women’s national freestyle team in San Francisco.

“I got into coaching and windsurfing so I didn’t have to be competitive anymore,” he said. “One of the first things I did was help start a women’s wrestling movement in the Bay Area that was recognized by the United States Wrestling Association in the early ‘90s.

“Through our efforts, women’s wrestling became a sanctioned sport and there are now women’s national tournaments, team trials, and even some international competitions. That’s something I’m very proud to have been a part of,” he said.

MacKay is also proud to have been involved with HRV’s 2002 Mt. Hood Conference championship team, and said it gives him great joy to see young wrestlers realize their potential.

“This program believes in building winners on and off the mat,” he said, “and it’s the coaches’ job to get the kids to believe in themselves. When we see them reach their goals, it really makes us feel like we’ve made a difference in their lives.”

MacKay, Brown, Flem and other local wrestling coaches like Keith Bassham (Hood River Middle School) and Randy Kiyokawa (Wy’east) understand that you only get out of something what you put into it. And they know that if you put your heart and soul into something, the kids become the main beneficiaries.

“Just last weekend, Rocky Level couldn’t make it to Saturday morning practice,” Brown said, “so Jeff stepped up and came to the school that evening to work with him. I know Rocky appreciated that.”

MacKay hopes to help Level join the short list of lightweight state placers he has coached at HRV. The three names currently on that list are Adam Lapierre (state champ, 1999), Jacob Thompson (6th place, 2000) and Esteban Avila (8th place, 2002). Level and Josh Van Ek appear to be the most likely candidates to join the list this year.

“I consider myself a training partner for the guys up to 140 pounds,” he said. “But I’m also there to help develop these kids into strong people. I can’t think of a better sport than wrestling to do that, because it doesn’t get much tougher than this.”

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