Wrestling is not for the faint of heart, but the dedication and hard work it takes to succeed tends to create strong family-like connections, and in Washougal those special bonds literally center around family.
John Carver and his wife, Heather Carver, are the head coaches behind the Washougal High Panthers’ highly successful boys and girls wrestling teams.
“I think working together holistically as a team together is what keeps us so consistent,” Heather Carver, head girls wrestling coach, said.
John Carver has led the Panthers’ wrestling program for 31 years. Carver wrestled his way to the state tournament and a college scholarship at North Idaho College while attending Washougal High School in the early ’80s. About the only time in his life he wasn’t hanging out in the Washougal High School wrestling room was during his four years of college.
He said wrestling has been like a personal road map through life and he cherishes the opportunity to share his life secret with young athletes.
“Wrestling taught me that you get what you earn, you show up everyday and work hard and it lets you know that there are other people working just as hard, but you have to embrace the daily grind to succeed,” Carver said.
That daily grind tends to be easier to embrace when you have family and close friends by your side. Shortly after starting the teaching and coaching job at his alma mater, John Carver hired assistant coach Rob Anderson who was a standout wrestler at Oklahoma State. Nearly three decades after that hire, Anderson remains by Carver’s side.
“He’s absolutely the reason our team is as technically sound as it is, year after year,” Carver said of Anderson.
The Carvers’ relationship started as a coaching friendship on the softball field.
Heather played softball for Western Washington University and, after graduating, she approached Washougal’s softball coach.
“I said, ‘Hi coach, I’m Heather Santos and I just graduated from Western and I’d like to help volunteer for softball if you have a spot,’ and he said sure,” Heather said.
That coach, of course, was John. The two athletes built a solid friendship, and, eight years after that initial meeting, Heather Santos became Heather Carver.
Along with their wrestling coaching duties, the couple continues to lead the Panther girls softball program.
“I love him, obviously, but also feel like he’s my best friend and we work as a team together in everything that we do to try and get things accomplished and that’s really special,” Heather Carver said of her husband.
In 2007, girls wrestling at Washougal was just getting started and the school needed a coach. Heather Carver, who majored in exercise science and is passionate about training, was the perfect fit. She grew up in a wrestling family, and her father and brother both excelled in the sport.
During that first season, only two girls turned out, but one of them grappled her way to the state tournament.
The Panthers have sent a female wrestler to state every year since then — an 11-year streak –and, this year, 22 girls turned out to be a part of the close-knit team.
In Washougal, the male and female wrestlers battle through tough practices together — in the same room, at the same time. It’s a wrestling tradition that has led to 16 league championships and one state championship since John Carver started coaching three decades ago.
Even with all those accolades, what the Carvers said the thing they’re most proud of is the wrestling program’s consistency.
“For the last 25 years we have had a wrestler at the state tournament representing Washougal, which is something we take great pride in,” John Carver said.
“It’s a tough sport. It hurts. I mean, it’s really combat training. But our team is always smiling because, just like us, they love it,” Heather Carver said.