After losing his first match of the season two weeks ago in overtime during a tournament in Lee Summit, Lindbergh High School junior wrestler Michael Slyman used the long car ride back to St. Louis to tell his dad he had all the motivation he needed for the stretch run.
His main goal? To beat dad, of course.
Also named Mike, Slyman’s father is a former state champion wrestler from Lindbergh, where he now serves as the Flyers' athletic director.
The elder Slyman dominated the high school wrestling scene in the 1970s, just as his son is doing now. He took second place in his junior year, and won the state championship his senior season after going 27-3-1.
Now he’s a proud parent, watching as his son attempts to join him on the banners hanging in the Lindbergh wrestling room.
“He told me while we were driving home after he lost,” Mike Slyman said. “He said, ‘I want to place higher than you did your junior year,’ and I said, ‘I hope you do’. He was ticked off about the match and I said, ‘Hey, better now than state.’
“I know its motivation,” he said. “My junior year I took second and I think he wants to do that at least.”
Michael appears ready to challenge his dad’s accomplishments. The overtime loss is the lone blemish on his season and his 29-1 record is one of the best in Missouri in the 152-pound weight class. However, Michael’s path to state has hit a speed bump: He’s recovering from mono. He missed the Fox match on Jan. 12 and may miss two more weeks. But Slyman is expected to return well before the district tournament in February.
Slyman has been figuratively crushing his opponents like a runaway train on the tracks, beating them before he even takes the mat. After a recent win against Eureka, Slyman said, “I‘m pretty sure I got in that kid’s head before the match even started.”
The confident Slyman can back up his talk. He went 48-6 and finished fourth at the state tournament last year as a sophomore and has improved enough for his dad to believe an even better finish is ahead of him this year.
But dominating his competition is nothing new for the younger Slyman—he’s been doing it since his first tournament when he was just 5 years old.
Before taking over as athletic director, Slyman’s dad was the wrestling coach at Lindbergh and also coached the little league program. It was during the evening little league practices where he would allow his son to come and mess around on the side.
After a year of watching others wrestle, little Mike wanted his chance.
“He asked when he could get in a tournament and we were hosting one the next weekend here,” Mike said. “Four kids signed up in his weight class and he beat them all and won the tournament.”
He did well in other events the next year, wrestling in just about every AAU tournament and winning the state championship.
At 7 years old, Slyman won the first of three eventual AAU state championships. One state title even came after he took a year off to play football while deciding which sport he wanted to turn his attention toward.
But in the end, the decision was quite easy.
“Wrestling runs in the family,” Slyman said. “All of my uncles were wrestlers and they were pretty successful at it. I’ve been wrestling since I was 4 years old, so for like a good 13 years. It’s what I love to do.”
Slyman’s dominance shouldn’t come as a surprise. He’s had a former state champion giving him private lessons on a mat in their basement since he first started wrestling. The two still go into Lindbergh’s wrestling room to wrestle on occasion, continuing a bond that formed between them two years ago.
“I never pushed it on him because that’s how parents sometimes want to live through their kids and I didn’t want to do that,” Mike said. “I try as much as I can to give him some advice, but also not be overbearing at the same time.
Admitting that he badly wants to join his dad as a state champion, Michael also declares that his dad can still hold his own on the mat.
“It’s not good to admit, but he does get the best of me sometimes,” Michael said. “He’s pretty quick for an old guy.”
Flyers coach Josh Hansel has the unique opportunity to coach Michael after having Mike as his coach years ago. He remembers the days of little Michael tagging along to practice, but never expected him to turn out as good as he did.
He’s also watched the competitive relationship grow between father and son.
“His dad is really good with him,” Hansel said. “You see some parents yelling and screaming and angry and Mike is not like that. He expects him to compete, but he’s just good with how he handles his kid and little Mike really responds and listens to him.
“I know Big Mike has said he hopes he breaks everything he ever did,” Hansel said. “He couldn’t be happier for him.”
Mike usually watches from the first row of the stands, where he yells out words of encouragement and instruction for most of Lindbergh’s wrestlers. But most of the talking with his son doesn’t come until districts and the state tournament.
“I’ll scout his opponents and say this is what he does and this is what you need to do. It was helpful for him last year,” Mike said. “But sometimes I’ll say stuff and he’ll say, ‘I know, I know’, so that’s when I back off.”
Said Hansel: “When you are out there wrestling, you pick out certain voices. I know he picks up his dad’s voice from anywhere in the gym. It’s a natural thing.”
But Hansel admitted he hasn’t had to say much with the way Slyman has been dominating of late.
“There’s really not a whole lot of coaching that goes on with him,” Hansel joked. “You just start clapping when it’s over.”
As the determined Slyman pushes toward a potential state championship, he knows he wouldn’t be in this position without one person: The man he plans to hopefully take down. The man who can’t keep a smile off his face while talking about him.
“I’m just so proud of him,” Mike said. “When he was little, I got nervous for his matches. But now, I don’t because what’s going to happen is going to happen. I know he’s capable of doing well. I don’t really get nervous. Maybe I will if he’s doing well at state.”
We know why.