The sound of clashing bodies hitting the shock-absorbent mat as kids grappled each other had been going on for almost an hour before Alexis Rivera briefly stopped the controlled chaos to give a simple instruction.
“Elevate the ankles!” Rivera shouted as he demonstrated the technique to about a dozen teens, who were listening intently. “That is the key to everything, you control everything if you elevate your opponent’s ankles.”
The kids seemed to take note of what Rivera had to say.
By day, Rivera, 39, is a financial consultant helping people plan for their retirement. On nights and weekends, he is molding the next generation of wrestlers through a group known as Beat the Streets Chicago Wrestling.
Beat the Streets is a wrestling program which helps Chicago kids learn the sport and in order to become, the group says, “life champions.” In addition to wrestling, the program tries to help students improve their diet, build character and achieve academically.
Rivera’s parents moved from Puerto Rico to Chicago, where his mother was a teacher and his father worked as an administrator with the Head Start program. Rivera grew up on the Northwest Side and went to the now-shuttered Weber High School.
He played basketball and baseball but it wasn’t until he was approached by the school’s wrestling coach in the hallway one day that he realized what the sport had to offer.
“Wrestling’s been pretty much the sport that has driven me to get better throughout my life,” Rivera said. “It’s a humbling sport because in wrestling there is always someone better than you, there is always more to learn.”
He excelled in the sport and in 1997 won the Illinois High School Association’s state championship in the 112-pound division. In 2001, Rivera competed in the NCAA Division 1 postseason as a member of the Northern Illinois University team.
Rivera did volunteer coaching for a variety of groups before he joined Beat the Streets in 2017. The group was founded 20 years earlier as a partnership between the Midlands Youth Foundation and the Chicago Park District. In 2014, it changed its name to Beat the Streets Chicago Wrestling and formed a partnership with CPS in 2016. The organization relies on grants, donations and volunteers.
Rivera said wrestling is a “great antidote” for kids dealing with anxiety issues or who have trouble sitting still in the classroom.
“For those kids who are trying to find their place in life, this is a place you can come and learn and there’s no judgment,” Rivera said. “You can come in, get beat up and that is going to make you better.”
More importantly, the sport also offers kids a path to college.
“One of our ultimate goals, is getting kids out of their current environment into a place where they can grow into bigger and better things,” he said.
Rivera said athletes from Beat the Streets have gone on to wrestle for NCAA programs on athletic or academic scholarships.
But Chicago kids remain at a disadvantage when it comes to access to wrestling clubs. Most clubs are in the suburbs, Rivera said, and joining can cost up to $500.
“We know there are great kids walking around right now that can be future Olympians,” Rivera said. “We are trying to build that environment here in the city so we can get more kids in Chicago moving to the next level, get them into college, getting scholarships.”
Beat the Streets athletes practice three times a week and compete in at least four weekend competitions during the wrestling season. More than 1,100 students in 3rd-12th grades participate at traditional CPS or charter schools throughout the South and West Sides.
The cost to join is $25 which includes a USA Wrestling Card — necessary to compete in the state. The program also provides equipment including wrestling shoes and headgear at no additional cost.
“We try to teach the kids to get in there and face your fears because life is filled with many fears,” Rivera said. “Once you’ve wrestled, everything in life seems easier.”
Manny Ramos is a corps member of Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South Side and West Side.