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Originally published Thursday, February 19, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Barnes family caught in wrestling's grip

When Lake Stevens High School's wrestling team competes, four generations of Barnes men are either in the grandstands, on the sideline or on the mat — a family consumed by and caught up in wrestling's grip.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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LAKE STEVENS — Bryson Barnes races toward the wrestling mat, as if the gym is on a tilt with an irresistible tug.

Not that an ounce of his 18-month-old body wants to resist. This is his playground. Those high-school wrestlers are his playmates. Never mind that state berths are at stake.

But daddy Burke Barnes still has the cat-quick moves that helped him capture four state wrestling titles at Lake Stevens. He scoops Bryson into the air, drawing grins from a swarm of fans in the stands that include great-grandparents Ray and Dorothy Barnes.

Four generations of Barnes are at the Snohomish gym as coach Brent Barnes leads his powerhouse Lake Stevens wrestling team to a 16th Northwest Regional title. Burke has gone from toddler on dad's lap to state champion to assistant coach, seemingly in the blink of an eye. Brent needs only to close his eyes and inhale deeply to recapture memories of his days at his father's side as young boys grappled with each other and learned the lessons of life.

My first discernible memories of life were sitting on the foot of the bleachers with my color book and crayons set up, watching my dad's Puyallup High wrestling team. ... At some point during the match I would find myself sitting on my dad's lap as he coached. This scene has played out in our family a number of times since.

— Essay by Lake Stevens coach Brent Barnes

Ray Barnes already knew how to connect with kids but he didn't know a thing about wrestling. The former college football player at Washington and Pacific Lutheran learned quickly, though. Before long his Puyallup wrestling teams were winning. He and Dorothy started a family — two boys with a girl in between, each two years apart — and the three Rs became reading, writing and wrestling.

Brent, the youngest, especially was enamored with the sport, grappling in the living room with his brother or sister or even mom. And every time dad went to the gym for practice or a match, Brent begged to tag along.

"He would throw a fit if he didn't get to go to the gym with me," Ray said.

The kid was thrilled when the older boys would tumble around with him on the mat. The ultimate prize for Brent was when he was considered old enough to sit on dad's lap as he coached at the state tournament. Ray's Puyallup teams were good — his 123-18 dual-meet record over 15 years earned him a spot in the Washington State Wrestling Coaches Hall of Fame in 1986 — but never quite good enough to capture a state title. Ray left Brent at home those early years at state, but his son learned of powerhouse schools from faraway places like Moses Lake and Sedro-Woolley and wondered what it must take to win it all.

To this day the smell — a mixture of popcorn, sweat and polyvinyl mat — brings back those early recollections. The sound of blowing whistles, coaches and teammates cheering, the erupting crowd and that gym smell has been transfused into our family's blood stream over the generations.

Brent Barnes still remembers getting his first wrestling singlet for Christmas when he was 7 and wearing it day and night, even after the elastic on the legs nearly cut off his blood supply. His mom would have to hide it to get it washed. He also remembers that Moses Lake won another state title that year, the school's fifth in a row, and wondered what a magical town that must be.

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Brent never got a chance to wrestle for his father, who gave up coaching two years later, in 1970, to become Puyallup School District athletic director. But the seed had been planted. Both he and older brother Ray wrestled at Rogers, the town's other high school. Brent placed second at state his junior year and won a title as a senior, then became a national champion his second year at North Idaho College. Injuries stalled his wrestling career at Oklahoma State, but it was clear he would follow in his father's footsteps as a wrestling coach.

It was in his blood.

When Brent took the head wrestling job at Lake Stevens in 1987, he asked what it would take to win a state title there.

"I don't know if it's even possible," he was told.

Lake Stevens, after all, had never won a state title in any sport.

Brent began working to change that and, more important, to change the way some kids looked at life, the importance of striving to succeed rather than fearing failure. He and wife Beth had started a family, with son Burke followed by two daughters. Soon, Burke was tagging along with Brent to the gym, sitting in his lap as he coached, and he was 6 when his dad first accomplished what grandpa couldn't, winning that first state title.

State at 5 years old became a faraway place where great things happened and teams and wrestlers were so tough that even my dad — the strongest, smartest, toughest person in my little world — couldn't come home winning it.

Burke Barnes admits he doesn't remember his first wrestling match. The sport simply always has been a part of his life.

"Growing up, every vacation we took was for wrestling," he said. "For me, it's been a huge part of my family."

Burke went on to become a four-time champion, only the second in state history at the time, and the Vikings won another team title in 2000.

The father-son/coach-wrestler relationship wasn't always the easiest, but Brent and Burke wouldn't have traded a second of it.

"My dad's my best friend," Burke said.

The two talked daily when Burke went to Boise State and then Dana College in Nebraska, where he became a four-time NAIA All-American.

Today, Burke is a purchasing agent for a commercial construction company. But his most treasured hours are back in the Lake Stevens wrestling room as an assistant coach, with young Bryson in tow.

And this weekend at the Tacoma Dome, a fourth-generation Barnes will get his first taste of the state tournament as grandpa Brent chases his seventh state title and Burke chases after his toddler.

Although little Bryson will probably not recollect those early thoughts that his grandfather had, it will more than likely trigger the wrestling gene that is so prevalent in the men that came before him.

Bryson's future plays out before him in the aroma-filled Snohomish gym. He will grow up around wrestlers, but no one will push him to become one.

"If he chooses to do that, that's great, but if not, that's just fine," Burke said. "I would guess it would probably be similar to what I went through."

Great-grandfather Ray would guess so, too. As he watches Bryson bolt for the wrestling mat at every opportunity, memories of his young coaching days come flooding back.

"I could see the same thing when Brent was starting his coaching and Burke was little. He would be in the gym just the same way, rolling around with the wrestlers, playing," Ray said. "And now I can see Bryson, he's really going to be a firecracker, so Burke's going to have to hustle."

Sandy Ringer: 206-718-1512 or sringer@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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