Silverback wrestlers learn athletic excellence and more

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Region - posted Mon., Mar. 28, 2011
Silverback Wrestling Club coach John Ware (right) offers a token of appreciation to Olympic Restaurant owner Angelo Sfakios. Photos by Melanie Savage.
Silverback Wrestling Club coach John Ware (right) offers a token of appreciation to Olympic Restaurant owner Angelo Sfakios. Photos by Melanie Savage.

The Silverback Wrestling Club is one of the oldest and most successful youth wrestling organizations in the area. “It’s definitely one of the oldest clubs in Connecticut,” said Rafael Calixto, co-founder of the club and one of its eight coaches. The club draws wrestlers as young as 4 years old. “We have wrestlers all the way up through college,” said Calixto. “We have some who wrestle in college, and then come back and train with us over the summer.”

And while the majority of the kids are drawn from Windham, there are club members from across the region. “We have kids from Ledyard, New Haven, Middletown, Montville, Norwich,” said Calixto. Tim Zeitler, a student at Northwestern High School in Winsted, travels more than an hour each way to train with the club. “He travels back and forth five nights a week to work out with us,” said Calixto.

So what is the attraction? There’s no doubt that the wrestlers are getting valuable training in their sport. At the dual meet in Lake Placid last year, the club placed second in its pool. “I think we were four and one,” said Calixto, “which is pretty good. Some of the best clubs in the country are there.” The club will return to Lake Placid this May, where its members will have another chance to wrestle in an arena that once hosted Olympians. “It’s a pretty cool experience for them,” said Calixto. “It’s something they probably wouldn’t be able to do, if not for the club.”

Mike Ruffino, a sophomore from Columbia, was on the junior varsity wrestling squad as a freshman last year. This year, he was the Class M state champion in the 103-pound weight class. Ruffino said that the Silverbacks helped him keep focused and conditioned during the off-season. “I had to work in the summer to keep my weight down,” he said. Ruffino also worked with club staff on strategy and technique during the off-season.

“We have a very knowledgeable staff,” said Calixto. “I think a lot of people around the state realize that our kids are really improving.” Between them, the eight Silverback coaches have decades of experience in their sport at the high school and college levels and beyond. For example, Shirzad Ahmadi was an Olympian with the Iranian National Team, according to his club bio. “We are trying to give back to the kids in the club, so that hopefully they give back to their own community,” said Calixto, reflecting a Silverback goal to go above and beyond athletic excellence. “We try to give them good life experiences, and teach them to be champions on and off the mat.”

A March 28 fundraiser at the Olympic Restaurant in Willimantic reflected this philosophy. For several years, owners Angelo and Lori Sfakios have opened their establishment to the club for a breakfast event. With a line out the door, wrestlers hurried through the dining room, taking part in every aspect of the event, from cooking to serving to clean-up. “They make them responsible,” said Rob Kurasz, whose son, Dan, is a junior at Montville High School. “If you want to be part of the competition at nationals, you have to earn the money to go.”

The club is scheduled to bring 26 wrestlers to a national championship in Virginia at the beginning of April. “They had a fundraiser this fall, where they raked people’s yards,” said Kurasz. “They were helping someone out, but at the same time they earn the money to go to a competition that they want to go to. That’s what I like, [teaching the wrestlers] that if you want to get there, there’s an avenue to do it. It’s an early life lesson, I guess.”

The club also provides an opportunity to make friends with kids outside a wrestler’s home town. “When Dan started, I don’t think he knew anyone,” said Kurasz. “Now, some of his best friends are part of this club. And I feel that those coaches really love my kid, and he loves them. Everyone who’s part of the club is part of a family. I wouldn’t go anywhere else.”

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