by Christopher Kinsler
February 6, 2000
Lessons In Life Through Wrestling
Some athletes are fortunate enough to have a coach who drives them, who makes them want to succeed. The coach who pushes you to become not only a better athlete, but also a better person – not just better in sports, but better in life.
For 35 years, Walt Thurnau has helped to do just that for countless Southwestern Central School wrestlers.
Since 1966, when he and his wife, Daphne, moved to the area to teach at Southwestern, Thurnau has been a strong voice in a Trojans wrestling program that was started by his predecessor and mentor, the late Clarence “Flash” Olson in 1954.
After spending more than nine years learning and practicing Olson’s coaching philosophies, Thurnau took over the helm of Southwestern wrestling in January of 1976, a position he still holds today.
Born in Chicago in 1943, Thurnau spent 13 years of his school years in the Phillipines where his father worked for the government. Thurnau returned to the United States where he attended, and graduated from Susquehanna Valley High School near Harrisburg, PA.
In 1961 Thurnau went on to Lockhaven University where he was on the wrestling, golf and cross country teams. He graduated from Lockhaven in January of 1966.
Later that year, Thurnau and his wife headed to an unfamiliar place – Jamestown area – where they both accepted jobs at Southwestern.
It was in November of 1966, Thurnau began almost a decade of assisting Olson and to this day Thurnau still tries emulate the style of his mentor.
“I think the motto he created has always been Pride, Sacrifice, Encourage,” Thurnau said. “I guess those are the three major attributes we have tried to instill in our wrestlers.”
He added, “I try very hard to coach the way he did. We used to call it being a gentleman, now I guess we call it sportsmanship – he was a class person. He always taught us that if you work hard, good things would happen. Probably the most important thing he taught us was to be persistent. He was an outstanding gentleman – someone you could admire totally. He was just a great human being.”
Like Olson did before him, Thurnau’s influence can be seen throughout the local wrestling community.
“I’ve never seen the man say a bad thing about anybody, I’ve never seen him knock anybody down in the process of winning matches and I’ve always respected that about him,” said University of Buffalo wrestling coach and former Cassadaga Valley wrestler Jim Beichner.
“He’s always been able to build a bridge with people that he’s competed against,” Beichner added. “He makes you feel comfortable and feel like a friend. I don’t think he ever let it get in the way of what real life is about.”
Thurnau’s influence can be seen throughout the local wrestling community. Take for example, Todd Conley and Craig Swanson. Both wrestled under Thurnau and are both currently coaching. Swanson is in his 11th season at Jamestown High School and Conley in his second at Randolph.
“I wouldn’t be coaching wrestling right now if it wasn’t for him,” Conley said. “It was more than just a coaching a sport, he made sports tie into life.”
You wanted to be successful for him,” Conley added. “He made you believe in yourself, he made you believe you could step on the mat and beat anyone, it didn’t matter who it was. He put a lot of time in. He cared about his wrestlers and he invested a lot of free time into it.”
And when one of Conley’s wrestlers faces one of Thurnau’s, Conley admits it’s something special.
“It meant a lot for me when one of my kids wrestled Southwestern and we were on the same mat,” he said. “It was almost like hearing him yell things to me.”
Swanson said that Thurnau has influenced the way he coaches his wrestlers.
“Walt Thurnau is like a mentor,” Swanson said. “The things you learn from him carry on. His work ethic, his attitude, his motivational techniques are awesome. A lot of wrestling things that I have learned have come straight from Walt Thurnau.
Like Swanson and Conley, Chris Fairbank, who graduated from Southwestern in 1998 and now wrestles at Brockport State, plans to coach. Fairbank’s already knows that when he coaches he will try to pass on what Thurnau has passed on to him. And like the others, Fairbank got more out of practice than just wrestling.
“He didn’t teach us just wrestling, he taught us life,” Fairbank said. “I refer to him as a second father, almost. The things that he had taught me have helped me so much from a moral standpoint, integrity – that’s the biggest thing, integrity, he taught me how to be a man.”
“Fairbank added, “Coach Thurnau is teaching us what he was taught by Coach Olson, I’ll probably coach a lot like he taught me and teach them about integrity and morals and doing the things that you are supposed to be doing.”
What Fairbank said about Coach Olson teaching Coach Thurnau and Coach Thurnau teaching a future Coach Fairbank is one of the things that makes Thurnau’s job so fulfilling.
“The tradition continues,” Thurnau said.
“The same things that Coach Olson taught me, I have taught them and they in turn, will teach their wrestlers. It’s like a huge extended family.
“I see a lot of Coach Olson in them, they are all class people. I know that he would be proud of them too – I know that he would.”
Thurnau seems to be admired by all, his wrestlers, his opponents and even parents appreciate what he has done for their children.
“I am personally grateful for the sportsmanship aspect and the work ethic that my kids picked up from him,” said Fairbank’s mother, Ellie. “He was always more than just a coach of wrestling, he was teaching my kids many life lessons that they have carried with them.”
Through his 25 years as head coach at Southwestern his teams have compiled 260 wins while has led the Trojans to Division 1 championships in 1987-88 and 1994-95 with a Section 6 Class B-2 crown in the 1994-95 season. Thurnau earned his 100th career coaching win during the 1986-87 season, then won his 200th in the 1994-95 season.
But perhaps one of the biggest honors for Thurnau was coaching Ed Pawlak to a New York State Championship in 1999.
In the 160-pound finals at Syracuse, Pawlak battled off sickness to earn a spot at the top of the podium to become Southwestern’s first ever state champ.
“It’s every coach’s dream to have a kid win the states,” Thurnau said of Pawlak’s feat. “I guess the fact that he was so sick and still able to win, because it was very difficult circumstances for him. Not only did he beat the top kid in the state, he beat him when he was not at the top of his game.”
In his 35th year of coaching, teaching and marriage, Thurnau still has a very strong passion for the sport of wrestling and admits that he owes wrestling a great deal.
“I owe it everything,” he said. “It kept me in school. It taught me some of the most important lessons I’ve learned in life. The only thing I owe more to is my wife.”
“Wrestling is a kind of a unique as far as a dedication and perseverance, he added. “Golf is, in a sense, somewhat similar. You can’t hide, you can’t blame anybody – you learn that you have to have to have the courage to continue. I think it really helps to make you the kind of person you are.”
Though he says there haven’t been many, he has thought about throwing in the towel before.
There’s been temporary moments of insanity,” he said, “but they don’t last very long. Coach Olson always talked about when you get knocked down, you have to dust yourself off and get going again – you can’t feel sorry for yourself. Coach Olson never let those things stop him.
“I can honestly say that there haven’t been many of those and they are very temporary.”
And Thurnau isn’t planning on bailing out on the wrestling world anytime soon.
“As long as it’s fun (I’ll keep coaching) – it’s still fun,” he said. “It’s like teaching – I enjoy getting up in the morning and going to work.”
Thurnau, who teaches American History to 11th graders, says he might not have pursued this profession if it weren’t for wrestling.
“I wrestled in high school, I wrestled in college. I loved it so much, that’s probably the main reason I went into teaching, so I could coach.”
He loves teaching. Whether it is American history or wrestling, Thurnau has a passion for teaching. And in the offseason or during summers, he doesn’t stop passing on his knowledge.
His wrestling teams have attended summer camps over the past few years and Thurnau who plays to a 7 handicap, takes some of his players onto the golf course with him.
Thurnau’s wrestling legacy, which Olson helped to mold, extends from his current wrestlers to former wrestlers now hitting the mats at top wrestling colleges, coaching and even officiating.
But still Thurnau won’t accept all the credit. After a tournament victory or even just a dual meet win, one of the first things he mentions is the work his assistant coaching staff has done.
“I’ve had the best assistant coaches anyone could ever ask for,” he said of current assistants, Doug Baer, Mark Hetrick and Ken Trimmer and former assistant, Jim Tillotson.
“They’re the reason that we have success, besides the fact that the kids work hard. Anybody that has any kind of success, it’s the people underneath that have made it happen. These guys are fantastic.”
To sum things up, “Look into Thurnau’s eyes. You can see the determination, the drive that he tries to instill in his wrestlers and students.
He is an outstanding leader – who leads by example on the mat and in the classroom.
Perhaps Beichener summed it up best.
“Not too many people can be as successful as he has for so many years. The guy just keeps going and going and going – he seems to be forever young. If you want a good teacher and a good coach you want Walt Thurnau."