Gio Jiovenetta didn’t like wrestling when he first tried the sport 11 years ago.
Now, the 18-year-old can’t stay away from the mat and recently went undefeated with five wins at the SWAT (Shawn’s Wrestling Academy Trained) Pre-Season Call-Out Tournament at St. Andrew’s School in Boca Raton.
“I love the challenge,” said Jiovenetta, a senior at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale.
Jiovenetta’s dad, Joe, urged him to give it a try as a youngster. Last year, the teenager from Parkland placed second in the 160-pound division of the Florida High School Athletic Association Class 3A state tournament.
“He started showing me the ropes and how to win,” Jiovenetta said of his dad’s coaxing. “(He made) sure I had a bright future in the sport and made sure I did my best.”
Jiovenetta said the SWAT folkstyle tournament, which attracted about 100 grapplers from South Florida, was a good experience. He especially liked the format, where you walk around the gym and pick your opponent to wrestle.
Jiovenetta, a member of the Dr. Funk Wrestling Club, said losing in the state championship final last year has made him hungrier. He expects to move up three weight classes and will wrestle at 182 (pounds) this season.
“It is my senior year, and I am that much more committed and ready to go on and take a state championship,” he said. “It is a good pressure because everybody is counting on you. Everyone expects big things from you, and there is a healthy respect for you. It is what drives you.”
Margate’s Biko Lobban, 18, likes the one-on-one aspect that wrestling provides. The senior at Deerfield Beach High School has been wrestling since his freshman year.
“When I get on the mat, everything else is blocked out,” said Lobban, a member of the Deerfield Beach-BSO PAL wrestling team. “It is just me and that person. I love wrestling people who are better than me because it helps me better myself. It’s a great feeling.”
Lobban said he hopes to go far this season. He lost in his last match at regionals last year and narrowly missed qualifying for the state tournament.
“Right now, I want to be state champion,” said Lobban, who will wrestle in the 152-pound division. “I was one match away from going to states last year, and it is still (in my head) right now. It motivated me a lot for this year.”
Tournament Director Shawn Sheldon, who runs the SWAT program, said there were no finals or placing matches. Wrestlers sought out other athletes in their same general weight class and asked them to wrestle.
“It’s more about the kids getting as many matches as possible,” said Sheldon, a two-time U.S. Olympian (1988, 1992) who narrowly missed medaling in 1992, when he finished fourth. He also won a silver medal at the 1991 World Championships. “They received medals on the amount of wins they had for the day. Losses don’t really matter except for them to learn from and to correct the errors.”
Coral Glades High School sophomore Julian Robinson, 17, started wrestling last year after watching his brother, Ricardo Plaza, compete.
“I used to see him competing in tournaments and wondered if I could do it,” said Robinson, who wrestled at 195 pounds last year and hopes to wrestle at 160 or 170 this year. “He took me to a practice, and I decided to do it.”
The Coral Springs teenager said the sport is extremely tough and you have to prepare yourself mentally.
“You have to work for it,” Robinson said.
Raiden Johnson, a sixth-grade student at Coral Springs Middle School, was one of the youngest competitors in the tournament at age 12. He is a two-time All-American within the 65-pound division.
Johnson, of Coral Springs, recently won the Copa Sparta Cup International Wrestling Tournament in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
“It’s not really important at all to win,” said Johnson, whose father, Henry, is in his 22nd year as an assistant coach at Coral Springs High School. “It is important to learn a new technique, and having the experience of being in Puerto Rico has changed me.”
Johnson, who ranges from 75 to 78 pounds, said he wrestled competitors in Puerto Rico who were older and bigger than him.
“I wrestled guys heavier than me and I pinned them and it is rewarding to me,” Johnson said.
For more information on USA Wrestling tournaments or clubs in the area, visit http://www.floridausawrestling.org.
Gary Curreri can be reached at SportsCom5@aol.com.