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Apr. 2—When Dalton native Alex Whitworth won his first Tennessee state wrestling championship in his eight grade year at the McCallie School in Chattanooga, he knew he could accomplish something special.
In Tennessee, unlike in Georgia, high school wrestlers can compete for state titles beginning in eighth grade. That makes five chances to win it all.
That first championship opened the door for history for Whitworth, and, in February, he stepped through it.
"There wasn't much pressure in eighth grade. If I won, awesome. If I didn't, I felt like it was OK, because I was an eighth-grader," Whitworth said. "I just wanted to go out there and have fun. Once I did it, I knew I had an opportunity. I wanted to win five titles."
Whitworth won his individual wrestling championship in each of his five seasons as a high school wrestler, becoming just the third wrestler in Tennessee state history to accomplish that feat.
"It was just like 'Wow, I finally did it,'" Whitworth said. "What I had been working for for the last 10 years really was finally done."
Whitworth grew up in Dalton and still lives there. He attended Christian Heritage School in the city until sixth grade as he began to wrestle on youth circuits outside of school, but Christian Heritage doesn't have a varsity wrestling team.
McCallie, a short drive up the interstate across the state border, became Whitworth's new home.
Even at McCallie, Whitworth's accomplishments still have Dalton's fingerprints on them. Matt Pitts, a Dalton resident who has worked with Whitworth on wrestling for more than 10 years, became an assistant coach at the school for the final two championships.
Pitts helped coach Whitworth through years of club wrestling.
"From the get-go, he'd do some things where you think he could be pretty special, but you never really know at that age," Pitts said. "He picks up on things quickly, and he's always been a natural at other things. Some of the things he does now, he was doing it at 9 years old, he's just gotten better."
After he made the jump to McCallie, Whitworth would practice against the high-schoolers, even as a sixth- and seventh-grader, before he got his chance to compete.
"I knew that I would have the opportunity to compete as an eighth-grader, so I just spent my time practicing and preparing," Whitworth said.
Of the now three wrestlers who have won state five times in Tennessee, Pitts has helped coach two. Zach Watson from Baylor, another Chattanooga school, won his fifth in 2012 with Pitts on staff.
"They have a lot of the same qualities," Pitts said of his two championship protégés. "It's cool to see it happen for him."
Whitworth got his title in eighth grade at the 106-pound weight class. As he grew — physically and in age — the competition grew as well as he bumped up to the 170-pound class by his senior season. The goal still remained the same.
"He never really talked about it much, but I always knew it was kind of a goal, especially once he did it in eighth grade," Pitts said.
A thinker, on and off the mat
Whitworth's wrestling talents have earned him attention from colleges, but it wasn't just his success on the mat that has led him to his eventual collegiate destination.
Whitworth plans to attend Harvard University, an Ivy League school with rigorous academic standards.
"I'm extremely excited to go to Harvard at the next level. They're building and looking great as a program," Whitworth said. "You can't get better schooling anywhere. That's been my goal to get Division I wrestling and a great education, and I feel like Harvard definitely accomplishes that for me."
Pitts said Whitworth's adroit abilities in the classroom have helped him to become a five-time champ.
"I think that says a lot about just his discipline, being able to do that well academically," Pitts said. "He just always knows where he's supposed to be and what position he doesn't need to be in. He's just a thinker."
The mental side of the sport became increasingly important for Whitworth as the championships — and the pressures — started piling up.
"There was definitely a little pressure the last few years," Whitworth said. "I had people telling me I would be the next five-timer. That was the goal, but I had to win two and three and four first. I had the pressure, but I didn't let it get to me."
To stave off that pressure, Whitworth finds the joy in the sport he loves.
"I really just tried to keep it where I was focusing on one match at a time," Whitworth said. "Once you get to the biggest stages, it really is important to have a good mindset. Everyone is a good wrestler at that point, and it becomes a mental battle. I just try to have fun."
To become that good of a wrestler in the first place isn't all fun, though.
Pitts has seen up close the amount of work Whitworth has put in since he was first starting out at 6 years old.
"Wrestling is one of those sports that you can see a kid all the way up through high school," Pitts said."All of this work he's put in has paid off. I'm definitely excited to see what he does at the next level."
"It's always been a dream of mine from when I was a little kid to someday wrestle Division I," Whitworth said. "Now that it's here, it's just great. It's kind of a culmination of all my years of hard work, and I'm finally able to reap the benefits of it. It was worth every bit of it."