WESTERLY — Five years ago at a peewee football practice, Westerly’s Robert Celico came to the realization that the gridiron might not be the safest place for his two pre-teen sons to thrive in athletics.
Sons Nicholas and Jonathan were two of the smallest kids on the team. Their father mulled the possibility of introducing them to other non-contact sports.
An accomplished martial artist and instructor, the father opted not to immerse his kids into karate at their age.
“They were small for the sport of football and I didn’t want a combative sport like martial arts for them just yet,” Celico said. “But I wanted them to get conditioning.”
He brought them to a Bulldog wrestling club practice.
“I liked what I saw and liked the whole realm of what the sport of wrestling represents: character, dedication and perseverance,” Robert Celico said. “They both loved it and became successful in a short period of time.”
The decision to shift away from football proved to be a touchdown for the Westerly family. Five years later, Nicholas and Jonathan are key members of Bishop Hendricken High’s RIIL state champion wrestling team and individual qualifiers for the New England championships.
Nicholas, a junior, won his first title Saturday in the 113-pound class. Jonathan, a sophomore, finished second in the 106-pound class. The top three finishers in each weight division make All-State and qualify for next weekend’s New England tournament at the Providence Career & Technical Academy.
Nicholas is 41-4 this season, including wins over the Connecticut 113-pound state champ Kyle Linder, 5-1. Jonathan beat the Vermont 106-pound champ, 6-2, en route to a 42-2 record.
Not only have the Celicos gravitated to wrestling, the sons and parents have become students of the sport. They seek the best training available locally at Blackstone wrestling club in Cumberland and traveling sometimes more than an hour away to train in Connecticut in Wethersfield and at MarcAurele’s Wrestling in Niantic.
They also practice the science of weight management to keep lean, healthy and light to maintain their weights.
After Nicholas beat Moses Brown’s Abe Bloom, a Westerly resident himself, in a 4-0 decision for the 113-pound title Saturday, he paid tribute to his father.
“I have to give credit to my Dad for getting us into the sport and coming up with a nutritional plan to make both Jonathan and I successful.”
The Celicos swear by FORZA nutritional supplements: occasional meal replacements and a dietary and fitness plan that keep weight off while providing necessary minerals for growing teenagers. Lee Kemp, a former World champion wrestler, founded FORZA.
“It’s a very expensive supplement,” Robert said. “But it’s devised by a wrestler and the best as far as keeping the weight off while keeping them healthy.”
At 5-foot-7, Nicholas stands one inch taller than his younger brother, so neither one is considered short for their weight. Making weight is a family endeavor. Erin, their mother who is a registered nurse, prepares their meals. Nicholas and Jonathan need to stay disciplined to avoid over-eating.
Breakfast usually entails yogurt, apple slices and occasionally a waffle and egg whites. Lunch and dinner includes “a lot of chicken.” Every wrestler is weighed before meets. In some weeks, wrestlers are afforded extra pounds to make weight, but at the Celico’s light poundage, they can’t balloon up more than five pounds a week.
“It takes discipline, but we can do it without getting crazy,” Nicholas said. “It’s tougher for Jonathan at 106. I’d say my walk-around weight is 120 and his is 117.”
In the competitive sport of wrestling, the Celicos realize they must compete at a weight that is both healthy and competitive to achieve champion status. Last season, Nicholas started the season at 106 pounds, but got bumped up to 113 when a strong Hendricken 106-pound senior won the starting spot. Still, Nicholas excelled at 113 pounds, finishing third in the state meet.
Jonathan would have likely started on nearly every other Rhode Island team at 106. Still he responded with a freshman state title.
This year, he finished second at 106, losing to junior Colin Cardosa, the No. 1 seed out of Mount Hope in a 7-1 decision. Cardosa got the jump, putting Jonathan on his back just 15 seconds into the match. Celico valiantly avoided a pin, struggling on the bottom to keep his shoulders off the mat, for two minutes before escaping for a point.
Several coaches watching at mat-side lauded him for his courage to stay in the match.
“He caught me off guard, but a lot of wrestlers would have been pinned,” Jonathan said. “I felt it was accomplishment to make it to a final in my first varsity season, but my goal is to win the final like my brother did today.”
Nicholas usually watches his brother’s match, but on Saturday he only listened.
“Sometimes I get so into his match that I lose focus on my match which is next,” he said. “This was the state final, so I had to prepare mentally for my match.”
The Celicos are their own best training partners ... at Hendricken practices and at home. The family installed a wrestling mat in their basement. Their father said his sons start training at 5:30 a.m. in their basement.
“We scramble and get after each other at home like brothers do,” Nicholas said. “Our wrestling gets pretty intense. We joke around that we do stuff on the mat at home that you couldn’t get away with in a match.”
Standing in the way of Nicholas’ first state title Saturday was a figurative adopted brother on the mat — Bloom, a fellow Westerly wrestling club teammate.
“My brother had experience wrestling Abe, but I had never faced him although we know each other well,” Nicholas said. “He’s very tough and a good little wrestler.”
And a wrestler who followed the same path into the sport as the Celicos. Bloom was 30-4 this season.
“I saw Abe’s father and he had the same concerns about his son playing football,” Robert said. “I told him about my story and suggested he check out the wrestling club. That was about four years ago, and look at how well he’s done.”