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Bill Martell ’55 Wrestling With Youth

June 16, 2003

For years, Bill Martell specialized in bodylocks and slide-bys, pinch headlocks and duck-unders—even the dreaded gut wrench. It was all part of his work as the coach for the 1996 U.S. Olympic wrestling team and the former head wrestling coach at the University of California at Berkeley.

But now Martell focuses his energy on 900-plus youngsters, many of whom are just learning to flex their muscles.

“I don’t see a lot of difference in coaching world champions and kids,” says Martell.

He should know. Winner of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame’s highest honor, he is also the author of two books,Greco-Roman Wrestling (Human Kinetics, 1993) and theIllustrated Guide to Teaching Kids to Wrestle (Human Kinetics, 1985).

“Kids have the same anxieties and the same learning processes as adults. It’s just as they get older, the sports techniques get more complicated,” he says.

Simple and straightforward, Martell is a man who feels strongly that sport is crucial to developing one’s potential as a human being.

That’s a big reason he enjoys directing the Concord Youth Center in the San Francisco Bay–Area suburb of Concord, where for the last 10 years he has influenced the lives of thousands of young people.

“We use sports to get the kids in here. While they’re having fun, we introduce them to the center’s rules,” says Martell. “We help them learn to be good, honest, healthy people.”

As he describes it, Martell grew up on the streets of south Portland near the Ross Island Bridge. “College wasn’t really in the plans, but I had a coach who told me to go to school and play baseball and football. After I got to Lewis & Clark, I realized this studying thing wasn’t too tough.”

Martell went on to earn a master’s degree in political science at the University of Oregon and served as head wrestling coach at the University of California at Berkeley until 1979, when the university dropped its wrestling program. He continued teaching there and began coaching international and Olympic wrestling teams.

Almost 30 years later, when it came time to retire, Martell wasn’t one to slow down. Instead, he teamed with Ken Hofmann, builder, developer, and part owner of the Oakland A’s, to build his dream in 1995.

The youth center, recently expanded to 32,000 square feet, features areas for wrestling, dance, boxing, judo, karate, weight-training, cheerleading, and gymnastics. It serves young people from a variety of economic and ethnic backgrounds.

“We work with the parks and recreation department, juvenile hall, and the school district,” says Martell. “We have a lot of family-structure problems in our society. But kids are just kids and they all need structure and direction.”

At home, he also maintains a strong focus on family. Martell and his wife, Betty Lake ’53, who met in a government class where the professor seated students alphabetically, have three grown children—Kevin, Kimberley, and Kristin—and three grandchildren.

 

—by Dee Anne Finken

 

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