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From Day One of Blackhawk to senior leader, undefeated regular season with Powhatan wrestling

From Day One of Blackhawk to senior leader, undefeated regular season with Powhatan wrestling

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Hayden Fitzsimmons chronicles growth of both the wrestling program and himself through the Blackhawk Powhatan youth wrestling club and the standard set by Coach Mike Walter

The match took place nearly a year ago.

Hayden Fitzsimmons recalled it like it had happened yesterday.

The Powhatan High School wrestler, then a junior, was facing King George County’s Mettres Murrill in the consolation quarterfinals of last year’s Class 4, Region B tournament.

Murrill, a defending regional champion, put Fitzsimmons to his back in the second period.

Fitzsimmons fought off the three-point pin attempt for what he said was like a minute before he got out of the jam.

He stayed on top of Murrill through the majority of the third and final period of regulation, but he was still behind in points, trailing Murrill 3-1.

Nine seconds remained.

But Fitzsimmons remembered how, the week before, his dad – Powhatan assistant wrestling coach and Blackhawk Powhatan youth wrestling club co-founder Richard Fitzsimmons – was showing him a last-desperation turn move. It was an all-or-nothing-type move that could either put your opponent on their back, or leave yourself in a position to get pinned.

Hayden landed the move.

He turned Murrill to his back. Two seconds before the final whistle could be blown, the referee awarded him two points for the near-fall, tying the match at 3-3 and forcing overtime.

With 36 seconds to go in the extra period, Hayden brought Murrill down to the mat for the winning takedown.

The thrilling triumph propelled Hayden into the regional consolation semifinals, where he won again to advance to the state tournament.

From there, Fitzsimmons wrestled his way to the Class 4 state podium, placing fourth in his 182-pound weight class.

“That was really one of the most emotional and breakthrough matches I feel like I’ve ever had to prove myself,” Hayden said of that match with Murrill, “especially that I had that potential to get on that podium.”

As he came off the mat, all of the memories he had made throughout more than a decade of wrestling came rushing through his head.

He was brought back to his youth days at Blackhawk, and to Blackhawk co-founder and Virginia Special Agent Mike Walter – to Coach Mike – pushing him and his peers to be tougher, to go harder.

It was through Blackhawk that Hayden began his journey to become the wrestler he is today.

Where his career began

It wasn’t just that Hayden’s wrestling career began with Blackhawk. It was with wrestlers like Hayden Fitzsimmons and Austin Walter that the nonprofit Powhatan Youth Wrestling and Community Development Corporation began – and has since firmly established itself as a revered and beloved youth wrestling program in the Powhatan community. Hayden was around 4 years old when Day 1 of the program, known as Blackhawk wrestling, commenced.

“It just amazes me to look back, even from – I remember the days we were rolling out one mat in the armory building near the village, just getting our workouts in there and then moving over to the Blackhawk building eventually and just transforming that building throughout the years and seeing the program grow,” Hayden said. “It’s been really amazing to see.”

Way back when he was “the smallest kid in the room,” Hayden looked up to “all these other big guys” and remembered being amazed by them.

“You feel like they’re your heroes. You look up to them in everything they do, especially with wrestling,” Hayden said, “and just to see how that felt like yesterday, and that time just flies by, and now you’re those little kids’ role models. You’re their people to look up to, and you’ve got to set the example for them and show them the standard of what this program has been and will continue to be.”

That standard’s always been the same, whether you were an older wrestler or one of the 4-year-olds like Hayden who were starting out.

And Coach Mike set that foundation.

“You were coming in there to work, and if you weren’t, then you would leave, and he was going to work you into the ground, or you were going to come out of that room stronger, and that’s always been the standard,” Hayden said. “It’s really meant a lot to the program.”

Hayden had always been very close to Coach Mike and also to his son Austin growing up, as Hayden and Austin were once the two youngest in the room.

“He was always just really, really tough love,” Hayden said of Mike. “He was going to put you through it and be tough with you, but at the end of the day…he would do anything for any one of us in there, and it was all out of love, because he wanted the best for us.

“One thing I liked he would always say: Skipping out on reps or slacking off, you’re not cheating them, you’re not cheating out the coaches; you’re cheating out yourself. This is all for you. This training’s for you. It’s not for us.”

Across his entire life, Hayden has picked up valuable life lessons through wrestling – through Blackhawk.

“It’s always been: you get whatever you earn,” Hayden said. “Nothing’s going to be handed to you. You’ve got to go make your own opportunities, and you’re going to work for it…work for what you want and go out and get it.”

Those lessons helped Hayden become one of Powhatan High School’s leading wrestlers.

Staying with it

Hayden remembered the ups and downs and the rough-patch stretches, especially throughout elementary and middle school, and how he had thought about quitting a couple of times. But his dad Richard and Coach Mike kept pushing him to keep going with it, and Coach Zach Olson, when he was brought on board, really pressed the concept of trusting the process.

Hayden also spoke to getting into the weight room a lot over the past couple of years, and to putting on a lot of mass.

It’s all paid off.

He’s now a defending regional and state placer who went undefeated in the regular season of his senior year.

He’s also part of a 2020-21 Powhatan wrestling team that achieved an unbeaten 15-0 regular-season record. It’s a team that’s been four or five years in the making, a battle-tested unit that both Hayden and his teammate Linwood Hill have called the best team that Powhatan’s ever seen or had.

“I definitely found that love for it,” Hayden said of wrestling. “I learned how to be tough with it, and, looking back, I would’ve heavily regretted giving up on something like that.”

Hayden has not only excelled in his new 195-pound weight class, but he’s also earned multiple wins by pin for his team while filling in for the injured Micah Holt at 220.

“Very fortunate to have a kid like that, that’s willing to sacrifice for the team, whatever it takes,” Powhatan head coach Jonathan Tanaka had said of Hayden following the team’s wins over L.C. Bird and Midlothian this season. “That’s hats off to him. He’s worked really, really hard in the weight room…very, very strong and has very good wrestling strength, functional strength.

“Super happy for him to have this senior season,” Tanaka said, “and he’s having a tremendous season.”

Hayden’s always in the room duking it out with his teammates in his weight range, who include Linwood Hill and Hans Rehme and have also included Holt. Growing up, there were always really tough competitors coming through that Blackhawk wrestling room, like Fitzsimmons’ current teammates and fellow seniors Hill and Sean Hall, as well as Benedictine's Zane Cox and Maggie Walker’s R.J. May.

Hayden remembers not being near their level when they wrestled early on. But then, he said, you would get “that one takedown on them, and it really gives you a boost of confidence that you kind of would need throughout the week...gives you that motivation.”

To be the best, the general idea is that you have to face the best. In addition to the teammates Hayden would wrestle with growing up, Coach Mike used to take Hayden and his Blackhawk teammates to “these really grueling tournaments” like holiday duals and the Bristol Brawl Border Championships.

“That really showed you the level of competition we thought we would want to be at, and then we’d get showed up by them,” Hayden said, “and it’s really showed the work you had to put in to get there, and how far off we were, and what we had to do to get there.”

Coach Olson also elevated the traveling aspect to different training places. Hayden said he and former Powhatan state champion J.D. McMillin have been to the intensive camp with Olson at Cornell in New York, and he added that he and his teammates have been to places like Virginia Tech and the University of North Carolina with “the best level of wrestling you’ll find in the country.”

Thanks to the traveling they’ve done, the fierce competition they’ve faced, the tough losses they’ve taken, the lessons they’ve learned from said losses and the grueling work they’ve put in from their Blackhawk wrestling days and all the way up through high school, his Powhatan varsity wrestling team, Hayden feels, is “the toughest group of kids I’ve seen come around from top to bottom.”

“If you would’ve told me four or five years ago as an eighth grader or a freshman that we were in the position, or I was in the position right now I’m in, I wouldn’t believe you for a second,” Hayden said. “It’s really just keeping our nose to the grindstone, especially through all that adversity we went through with the passing of Mike.”

A coach, mentor, friend and hero

Hayden and his wrestling family have experienced great triumphs together – but they’ve also had to come together and stay strong together through tragedy.

In May 2017, the community was devastated by the loss of Coach Mike Walter, who was killed in the line of duty as a Virginia State Police special agent.

Three days after he passed, several hundred people gathered at Blackhawk Gym – many dressed in black and orange to show their pride as Powhatan Indians, many wearing shirts that showed the thin blue line representing law enforcement – to share tears, laughs and stories about the man who had bettered countless lives around him.

As Hayden’s dad Richard had told media following the tragedy, Coach Mike – who was fondly remembered as loyal, honorable, a former Marine, a state trooper, a coach, a youth club leader, a mentor and a friend – didn’t just raise wrestlers and athletes.

He had created a family.

“He really was one of the true heroes,” Hayden said. “He turned around a lot of people’s lives, fixed a lot of people.”

To Hayden, seeing all of the people who had come from all over to see Coach Mike's final memories really just showed how much of an impact he had made, and how important he was to Blackhawk – to the County of Powhatan.

Through the tragedy of losing Coach Mike, it really showed Hayden to “hold the ones you love closely every day.”

“Just go through life loving everyone, being positive,” Hayden said. “As tough as he was on everyone, he really did it through love. He changed everyone.

“He made a huge impact,” Hayden said, “and just made the world a better place by the things he did.”

His future

Coach Mike, who had served his country as a Marine for five years, is among the role models who have influenced Hayden in his current career path.

Growing up in Powhatan and coming up through Blackhawk, Hayden has been surrounded by a community of police officers and military veterans, including Coach Mike, J.D. McMillin’s dad Rob McMillin and Hans Rehme’s dad, Hans Rehme Sr., who have helped bring to light what Hayden wants to do with his life.

Hayden plans to go into the United States Coast Guard. Right now, he’s looking into being either a boatswain’s mate or a Maritime Enforcement officer.

“I want to be out and about on the ocean – do some traveling, see the world,” Hayden said.

To Hayden, Blackhawk – out of everything – has had the biggest impact on his life.

“It’s shaped me into the person I am today,” Hayden said. “That’s a family. That’s my family up there. Those are my brothers and sisters I go to war with every day now.

“It’s great to have people like that behind you every day.”

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