In talking to family and coaches of Caleb Johnson, a Blaine senior wrestler with state championship hopes, one theme emerges very quickly: When he has a goal, he commits his entire being to success.
“He puts his whole self into things,” his grandfather Bill Carson said. Caleb’s grandmother, Yvonne Carson agreed: “There’s no halfway with Caleb.”
Caleb’s current goal is to wrestle to the best of his abilities, and win the 1A state championship for the 220-lb. weight class in Tacoma this winter. It’s a goal he’s had for many years, probably since he first learned about state titles.
At the age of eight in second grade, Caleb started wrestling under the direction of coach Craig Foster, who was the primary
school physical education teacher and coach of the Barracuda junior wrestling team. Foster has been the Blaine varsity wrestling head coach for 18 years, and is now coaching Caleb through the fierce competition of Washington 1A high school wrestling. Another member of the varsity wrestling team, senior Justin Belding, started wrestling with the Barracudas the same year as Caleb. Both Belding and Caleb are now varsity captains, along with fellow senior Jon Stewart.
When Caleb started wrestling, he was a heavyset kid, and not an athletic standout.
“Natural-born athlete?” his mother Tricia Johnson said. “Not so much. He got an ‘A’ for effort.”
“I wasn’t very good when I was little,” Caleb agreed. “I was awful.”
But his size served him well in middle school. He beat all but one of his opponents during that time, and he remembers his sole defeat like it was yesterday:
“Jeremy Cortez,” he said. “He beat me up pretty good.”
Through middle school, Caleb grew into his heft and gradually became a better wrestler. As a freshman entering the competitive world of high school wrestling, Caleb said he thinks he won about half his matches. Over that year and the following off-season, he improved dramatically through hard work in the gym, practicing the nuances of his favorite sport and monitoring his diet.
It was around this time he made a deal with his mother.
“I’d always wanted a tattoo,” he said. “My mom agreed that if I made it to state, I could get one.”
Sure enough, Caleb made it to the state wrestling competition in Tacoma his sophomore year, and that spring Tricia relented. She held up her end of the bargain and let him get a tribal design tattooed across his left shoulder.
The tattoo may have provided some incentive during his sophomore year, but his parents Tricia and Brett both insist that Caleb’s motivation to succeed comes from within.
“It’s all Caleb,” Tricia said. “We encourage him because he loves to wrestle, and we support all his efforts any way we can, but he really puts the pressure on himself.”
Sometimes, Tricia said, that can be frustrating to her, especially when Caleb has to restrict his diet to make a certain weight.
“As a mom, I see a kid who needs to eat,” she said. “He was always safe, and there are regulations in place to make sure athletes stay safe when cutting weight, but I still worried sometimes. He would always say, ‘Mom, I’m fine.’ He’s very disciplined.”
Brett said he also worries about his son getting injured in wrestling and on the football field, where Caleb plays linebacker, tight-end, guard and fullback.
“He got a grade three concussion his sophomore year in football,” Brett said, “so we were concerned every time he took the
Brett said their 18-year-old son has suffered broken fingers, broken arms and a broken nose over his athletic career.
“It can be scary as a parent,” Brett said, “and it goes both ways. Some of his opponents have gotten broken bones, too. You never want to see that, but you accept that there’s risk involved with any sport.”
In the past two years, Caleb has soared to dominance in his wrestling. Although he made it to Tacoma his sophomore year, he didn’t place in state competition. Last year, competing as a junior in the 195-lb. class, he placed fifth in the 2A division at the state tournament. This year, his gaze is set firmly on the top of the podium.
“He’s faster this year,” Brett said of his son. “He’s learned to take down his opponents a lot quicker.”
Foster agreed that Caleb has what it takes to take home the championship.
“He’s fully capable experience and talent-wise to win the championship,” Foster said. “But anything can happen, and it’s always a challenge.”
Foster said he thinks Caleb’s work ethic will prepare him well for the challenge.
“In this sport, the experienced kids figure out the link between hard work and success,” Foster said. “Caleb’s not afraid to work hard, and he’s not just working hard in practice because the coaches are yelling at him. He’s motivated to succeed on his own.”
Foster said Caleb, despite his size, always manages to be near the front of the pack on team runs, which is a sign of his dedication to training.
“I like to run with the littler guys,” Caleb said, “because they’re so much faster, and if I’m running with or beating them, then I know I’m pushing myself as hard as I can.”
Caleb said cardiovascular exercise to increase his endurance has been one of his primary targets this season, because endurance is a key to winning matches that stretch beyond six minutes.
“It’s the sixth minute that gets you,” he said. “If you’re dying in the sixth minute, that’s when you start wrestling not as smart, you get tossed on your back or give up a takedown, and that’s when you lose matches.”
Aside from improving his endurance, Caleb said he is working on his mental approach: wrestling smarter, not risking a turnover by going for a pin if he already has an opponent beat on points, and also dialing in his focus and confidence before each match.
“I like to listen to music before the match,” he said. “That gets me pretty pumped up. Then I just think to myself, I’ve been doing this for so long, I’ve wrestled countless matches, and I feel like I can beat almost anybody that I go up against. I just tell myself that I can’t lose, I’m not going to lose, and that helps push me in my match.”
“He’s his own toughest critic,” Tricia said. “He really takes it to heart when he loses. We try to tell him it’s okay, that we’re proud of him whether he wins or loses, but he tells us losing is not an option.”
“I hate losing,” Caleb said. “Before every match, I tell myself, ‘It doesn’t matter, win or lose, just try your hardest,’ but when I lose it sucks so bad.”
His parents say they are unsure where their son’s competitive nature comes from. Brett said Caleb’s grandfather on his father’s side, Ralph Johnson, was a standout athlete and captain of the Blaine basketball and football teams in the mid-1950s.
“That competitive nature might have skipped a generation,” Brett said. “Caleb would make his grandfather proud if he were still here.”
“He says he likes wrestling best because he can’t blame anyone but himself for his mistakes,” Bill Carson said of his grandson. “I always tell him, ‘play hard, play fair and have fun.’”
For his part, Caleb said a lot of his drive comes from the encouragement he receives, which has the dual effect of motivating him and applying pressure.
“I feel like, being from Blaine, everybody is so supportive,” Caleb said, “and I think what drives me the most is not wanting to let down everybody who tells me I can do it. So there’s a big burden there to accomplish my goals, and a lot of pressure on me from everybody in the community, but I think that’s what pushes me to work harder.”
Caleb maintains a 3.2 grade point average in high school, and said his favorite class is currently international business. His plans following high school are sensible: Stay close to home to take classes at Western Washington University or Whatcom Community College while he figures out exactly what he wants to do, then transfer if the need arises.
“Since business is my favorite class in high school, I’d probably lean toward that as a major in college,” he said.
Foster said he is unsure whether Caleb will play sports in college.
“I’m not sure what his plans are, but I’d imagine he has the talent to compete in either sport [football or wrestling] in college,” Foster said. “And then he’ll finally get some good coaching!” he added in jest.
For now, Caleb is unshakably focused on the state tournament in Tacoma.
“I have to be confident in what I know I can do,” Caleb said. “I don’t think anybody can stand in my way. If I can stay in the positive mental mindset of wrestling, then I think I can achieve my goal of being a state champion.”
While the championship is not guaranteed, one thing is for sure: win or lose, Caleb has proven he has what it takes to succeed.