John Rees may have accepted to use a wheelchair to compete in basketball while in college, but the 51-year-old father of two has never accepted less than the best when it came to influencing young lives. The former Central Valley and Eastern Washington wrestler and longtime coach at Evergreen Junior High in Spokane never let his disability hold him back from competing, coaching or teaching. His struggle with polio just made him a stronger person, while teaching others to be just as tough.
Rees never asked for anything in wrestling – he had to work for everything he’s accomplished – and that it’s the best thing he ever got involved with. But, now, the sport is giving back to Rees – honoring the retired teacher/counselor on Saturday, along with four other Washington wrestling devotees for their efforts from in part of the inaugural chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame for this state.
Rees, who was struck with polio at just 18 months old and had to retire from teaching early because of effects, will receive the Medal of Courage Award at the Valley Doubletree Hotel.
This award is given to an athlete or coach that has overcome a handicap and had a lot of success in wrestling.
And that’s Rees to a T, says his colleagues.
“There’s no more deserving person than John Rees,” said Jay Rydell, former Central Valley wrestling coach/athletic director and current president of the Washington chapter. “He gives 100 percent as a person and as a coach.”
Rees will be joined Saturday along with four recipients of the Lifetime to Service Award: Eric Beardsley, former coach at Moses Lake and Central Washington; former Rogers coach Kenneth Pelo; Cash Stone, all-time winingest coach in Mead history; and Nick Simchuk, who provided new and reconditioned mats for schools for over 55 years.
Rees is humbled to be mentioned in the same breath as the aforementioned four.
“It’s just an exciting time, because I have some people stepping up and saying some really nice things about me,” Rees said. “And to be included with Cash Stone, Ken Pelo, Eric Beardsley and Mr. Simchuk, it’s kind of like a dream.”
It has been a long journey for Rees, but one that he has enjoyed.
Rees walked with crutches until he was persuaded to join an upstart wheelchair basketball team at Eastern in 1974.
For the first time, Rees was competing against others with disabilities, not able-bodied athletes. And everything was easy for Rees.
“After I started playing wheelchair basketball, the wheelchair lost its stigma,” Rees said. “Now it’s just a part of me.”
Rees was player/coach for the Spokane Cyclones wheelchair basketball team that placed third out of 200 teams in the National Wheelchair Division II playoffs in 1998.
“When you have a disability your whole life, the adjustments are still hard, but it’s not like being an able bodied person.”
At Eastern, Rees also competed in wrestling, and later joined gymnastics where he was Eastern’s top still rings gymnast.
In 1974 Rees began his successful coaching career at Evergreen Junior High, in which he posted an unblemished record from 1977-1982 and won six championships. In its heyday under Rees, Evergreen had a turnout of 120 seventh-and eighth-grade boys.
“Wrestling was one of the few sports that I could compete in,” said Rees, who was a varsity lightweight at Central Valley. “It’s one-on-one and I like that part if you work hard you usually get back what you give. It just stands for a lot of things that I believe in.”
All of the key ingredients that Rees mentioned about wrestling: determination, courage and believing in yourself, are the underlying structure in what he represents.
“He’s never torn a kid down. He always finds something positive about the kid, no matter who they are,” Greenacres wrestling coach John Moore said. “He always finds something positive about a kid, always builds them up.”
Moore brought Rees back into the wrestling room as an assistant coach at Greenacres, after the two had opposite positions at Horizon Junior High.
“I like his philosophy. I like how he works with kids,” Moore said. “I couldn’t think of a better man to be honored. I couldn’t think of a better man more deserving.”
Rees may be back into coaching, however, he is physically unable to demonstrate a half nelson or a single-leg takedown, but he has been a mentor to many kids.
“I never really had this as a goal,” Rees said of the honor. “I’ve always looked at coaching wrestling as a gift, I just can do it.”
In 1990 Rees was to the point that he could no longer teach or counsel because of post polio syndrome. He was a counselor seven years at Horizon Junior High and was a teacher at Evergreen for 11 years.
After one unsuccessful comeback to teaching, he still yearns to be in the classroom.
“You show somebody that you care about them by spending time with them and showing them things,” Rees said. “You don’t ignore them.”
Saturday Rees won’t be ignored, but immortalized.