Nikiski's Joel Ribbens warms up for a game against Houston on Saturday at Nikiski.
Photo by Matthew Carroll
If somebody had told Nikiski senior Joel Ribbens the day before he joined the wrestling team that he would join the wrestling team, he never would have believed it.
As a sophomore, Ribbens stayed after school one day to select a piece for Drama, Debate and Forensics. The problem was the teacher he needed to talk to about the piece was gone, leaving Ribbens stranded.
“I had absolutely nothing to do,” Ribbens said. “I was going to be stuck sitting in the hallway for three hours.”
A friend wandered by and gave Ribbens a suggestion. Why not go to wrestling practice?
“Before that, I’d never considered joining,” Ribbens said. “It hadn’t even crossed my mind.”
Because football season wasn’t over, and many wrestlers come to football, Ribbens would be one of four wrestlers at practice that day. Abe Porter, then the coach, wasn’t there yet, so the four wrestlers created a pyramid so the lightest wrestler could hop into the upper gym balcony, then come down and unlock the door for the other three.
Ribbens went to practice and was hooked, especially after the first road trip the team took was to Barrow.
And then he went on to become one of the state’s most dominant wrestlers, taking multiple state titles, right? Wrong. The moral of the story is much more complicated than that.
“He’s about as athletic as I am, which is not much,” said Peter Ribbens, Joel’s father. “He will stick with it, though, where I won’t. He has a lot of willpower.”
Joel Ribbens’ willpower almost earned him a trip to the state meet. He finished fourth in the conference tournament as a senior. As a junior, the top four in conference went to state. As a senior, only the top three earned state bids.“If I had gone to state, that would have been a highlight,” Ribbens said. “At the same time, not going to state doesn’t change anything. I learned a lot of valuable lessons in wrestling, and I don’t think I would have learned any more if I had gone to state.”
Ribbens said one of the biggest lessons he learned from wrestling is that all beneficial things in life are not fun. Just because those things are not fun does not mean they are not worthwhile.
“Wrestling is one of the most it is the most difficult individual sport,” Nikiski wrestling coach Lucas Peless said. “For a teenager it’s not fun to work that hard. He worked hard not only because of his goal, but he was working hard for a higher cause, the higher cause being an example to the team.”
When Peless went around to the wrestlers at the beginning of the season, Ribbens said his goal was to get as much out of his body as possible.
“I’ve always been physically awkward,” Ribbens said. “Wrestling totally made me much more capable with my body.”
At the same time, Peless said Ribbens has helped the wrestling program at Nikiski despite not making a trip to state.
“He’s never spoke negatively about wrestling to all kids, especially young kids,” Peless said. “He’s always encouraging them. One kid that actually quit is coming back after talking to Joel. Other kids are joining too.
“It’s not all fun and games, but it is worth it Joel’s made that quite apparent to everyone at school.”
Ribbens also has used his positive and magnetic personality to contribute to the soccer team.
Unlike wrestling, soccer is a sport Ribbens always knew he wanted to pursue. He’s been playing the sport since he was 5 and is such an enthusiast he will watch games on the Internet. When the 2002 World Cup was staged in South Korea and Japan, meaning the games were in the middle of the night, the timing didn’t stop Ribbens, much to the chagrin of parents Peter and Nora. After a game, Ribbens and a friend took to the street with a drum.
“They were out there singing at 5 in the morning,” Peter said. “It’s a wonder they didn’t get shot.”
Nikiski soccer coach Jim Coburn said Ribbens brings that passion to the field.
“He puts 100-plus effort into everything,” Coburn said. “He’s a student of the game. He knows the rules, and he knows a lot of history of the game.”
Just as in wrestling, Ribbens’ athletic ability has meant he’s had to battle for everything he’s gotten in the sport. He earned his first varsity start this year against Palmer.
“It made it all worth it,” Ribbens said of the start. “I’ve been playing so long, and I felt like I accomplished something.”
Nikiski has a young team this season, with just four seniors on the roster. Coburn said Ribbens is one of the most liked players on the team and has provided invaluable leadership.
“He works hard all the time and always tries to do the right thing,” Coburn said. “I don’t think Joel’s afraid to do anything. He’s one of those kids.”
Ribbens’ hard work has resulted in success in the classroom and in Drama, Debate and Forensics. He carries a 4.063 grade point average on a weighted scale, is a member of the National Honors Society and is the student body vice president this year. He will attend Williamette University in Salem, Ore., next year.
In Drama, Debate and Forensics, Ribbens finished second this year at state in Readers’ Theatre, teaming with Justin Smith and Tyler Payment. He also teamed with Kara Bethune to take fourth in Public Forum debate. Nikiski DDF coach Joe Rizzo said the finish in Public Forum debate was impressive because it came against a field of 30 to 35 teams from all sizes of schools.
Rizzo said Ribbens’ intelligence was apparent in seventh grade, when Ribbens played a part in Rizzo’s “An Evening Without Sinatra.” By the time Ribbens got to high school and was debating for Rizzo, Rizzo said Ribbens was actually too quick of wit.
“When Joel first started debating, he was so smart his brain would get ahead of his mouth,” Rizzo said. “He wouldn’t finish an argument. His brain would move onto the next argument while his mouth was still on the last argument. Unless they could read his mind, the judges couldn’t understand him.
“He’s come a long way in synthesizing his thoughts and making them coherent. He’s improved his communication skills 100 times over.”
Peter Ribbens agrees, saying DDF is one of the most valuable things a student can do in high school.
“He’s become much more methodical. Three years ago, we couldn’t hardly understand him,” Peter said. “It was kind of a joke. He’d say something at the dinner table, and his sister would have to translate. She’s off to college, so we had to figure it out.”
Soon, Ribbens will be off to school too. Peless said he will leave a void.
“He’s just a remarkable kid,” Peless said. “He’s a pleasure to have on the team, in class and in school. He’s a great asset to the school, doing things like waving the flag at basketball games. He was willing to put himself on the line when any occasion called for it.”
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