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Wrestling helps Riverbend twins grapple with loss of parents

Free Lance-Star - 2/15/2020

Feb. 15--There's a small sign in Riverbend High School's wrestling room. In green print, it reads: "Strength is the product of struggle."

For most of the dozen or so grapplers rolling around on the mat during a recent practice, it's nothing more than a cliché, the sort so ingrained in sport as to go unnoticed.

Noah and Nate Taylor don't have that luxury. The past four years have been an unrelenting struggle for the Taylor twins, juniors who wrestle at 132 and 138 pounds, respectively.

In August 2016, their mother, Cheryl Lynn Taylor, was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer. A year later, their father, James "Jimmy" Henry Taylor IV, was killed in a still-unsolved hit and run on Interstate 95 in Dumfries. Cheryl Taylor's health deteriorated rapidly last month, and when she passed away Jan. 23, her death left the twins adrift in more ways than one.

The wrestling room is just about the only place they can find their bearings. In a universe of two-minute periods, cross-wrist takedowns and butcher finishers, there is strength.

"Everything's just in the moment," Nate Taylor said. "After the match, it'll come back to me. But it helps. Wrestling definitely helps because you're constantly working, so it separates you from what's going on."

"I just forget what's going on in my outside life," said Noah.

'GO AHEAD AND BE KIDS'

The line snaked out the side door of Tabernacle United Methodist Church at 1:30 p.m. on Feb. 7. The church's main sanctuary couldn't accommodate the crowd for Cheryl Taylor's memorial service, so the gathering was moved to a larger, multi\purpose room on the ground floor.

At the end of the line stood Nate and Noah, receiving guests along with their brothers Henry and James.

As people found their seats for the service, a photo slideshow played on a projector. Some of the shots were from happier times, like a family portrait with toddlers Nate and Noah wearing matching black overalls.

Others were more recent, like the photo taken in Riverbend's gymnasium: Cheryl, with one twin on each side of her wheelchair. She is bald but beaming as her sons point triumphantly at a poster-size wrestling bracket.

Riverbend's entire wrestling roster--Nate and Noah's teammates--took up two rows of chairs on one side of the aisle at the service. Cheryl's friends and coworkers at Gunston Elementary School in Lorton, where she taught for 25 years, spoke about her sense of humor.

When it was Noah's turn to speak, he quickly outed himself as a "momma's boy" before choking up and returning to his seat. Nate mentioned a shift he witnessed in his mother's final year.

"She was loving, a side that most of us hadn't seen," he said to a collective chuckle. "And I guarantee that if everyone here came and visited her one time and they didn't know that side of her, they would've seen a much deeper, loving side than usual. And I think she wants everyone to know that."

No one was thinking about wrestling, even though the Commonwealth District tournament was scheduled to begin in less than 24 hours. The Taylors hadn't competed since Cheryl's death, and no one would've blamed them if they hung up their singlets and headgear for the remaining three weeks of the season.

Later that afternoon, Nate confided in his "Memaw," Cheryl's mother, Barbara Rudich. He didn't want to wrestle--he needed to.

"I've tried to make them go ahead and be kids," Rudich said. "I said, 'OK, you go do it, and it'll be all right. We'll tend to the rest of it.' "

'TAYLOR TOUGH'

Any number of ill-fated breaks could've shattered Nate and Noah completely.

There was the moment when the state troopers came to their door and revealed that the highway cameras weren't working the night their father was killed.

Or when Cheryl's cancer spread more quickly than anticipated, first to her bones and spine and, finally, to her brain.

Or when she lay unconscious those final three nights in hospice care, with Noah at her side. Nate couldn't bear the silence.

Instead, the twins were back at Riverbend--and back in the wrestling room--the very next afternoon. They were seeking a distraction, not sympathy.

"From the outside, if you looked in, you wouldn't really think there's anything wrong," teammate Clay Rankin said. "I think it's from the mentality their father trained into them. I think they're just hard people."

That mentality actually has a name: "Taylor tough."

"Life sucks, people suck sometimes--get over it and keep going," explained Henry Taylor, who also wrestled at Riverbend. "The reason we have that saying is because we've been through many hardships, and we always seem to come out on top. We look back to family values to get through it."

Riverbend coach Mark Roberts remembers meeting the Taylors at Kodiak Wrestling, a youth program based in Spotsylvania County.

"At a time where most kids still had a little baby fat and chub on them, these guys come in," Roberts said. "They all looked the same: flat tops, all little monsters."

Over the next several years, Roberts got to know the boys and their father, who was a near-constant presence in the wrestling room. If there was an extra workout or a task that needed additional bodies, Jimmy Taylor brought his sons.

Nate and Noah continue to follow their father's example. Earlier this season, when Roberts needed help cleaning the showers after early-morning workouts, guess who volunteered?

"It's the epitome of what you want as a coach: respectful, polite--the kid you want off the mat," Roberts said. "As soon as they step into that environment, the switch is flipped: they're aggressive, competitive, mean."

WRESTLING AS THERAPY

The day after their mother's funeral, both Taylors pinned their way to the district finals.

Cheryl Taylor loved to watch her sons wrestle. When she grew too sick to travel to tournaments, Roberts started streaming matches on Facebook Live. She and Rudich were in transit to an event at Riverbend when Cheryl fell ill and required hospitalization for the final time.

Noah was up first at 132 pounds, wrestling Colonial Forge's Daniel Merida. He scored a quick takedown to take a 2 -- 0 lead before allowing an escape and suffering a takedown of his own to end the first period.

He wasn't only struggling with Merida, but also with his right knee. In high school wrestling, athletes are allotted a cumulative one-and-a-half minutes for injury timeouts. Twice during the match, Noah crumpled to the mat in agony. One more stoppage would result in a medical forfeit.

"I told him, 'You go down again, that's it,' " Roberts said.

Noah did go down once more, during the third period. But before the referee could stop the bout, he pulled himself up and crawled back to the center of the mat to ride out a 9 -- 4 victory--Taylor tough.

Nate needed just 58 seconds to pin Colonial Forge's Jack Erbe for the 138-pound district title. Family members crowded around as each twin took his turn atop the medal podium.

"This has been therapeutic for them," said Will Rudich, an uncle who moved into Riverbend's school district when Cheryl got sick. "Instead of having to think, they just read and react."

Off the mat, there's plenty to consider. The twins plan to split time living with their Memaw in Stafford County and at the family home in Spotsylvania until graduating from Riverbend in 2021. Last year, Cheryl appointed Henry as the boys' guardian.

The loss of a breadwinner, coupled with Cheryl's protracted illness, wreaked havoc on the family finances, and the boys can collect Social Security benefits only until March, when they turn 18.

Heading into today's Region 6B tournament, Noah and Nate hold records of 26 -- 8 and 20 -- 10, respectively. Both have received serious interest from smaller state colleges such as Ferrum and Averett.

"If situations were perfect, I think they'd have a great shot to go on [to wrestle in college]," Roberts said. "What happens now? Are they going to have to switch their goals?"

While some aspects of the twins' futures are uncertain, they know they're not alone--and that each feat on the mat is a family accomplishment.

"It's what my mom and dad wanted for us, to win," Noah Taylor said. "We hold them on our shoulders while we wrestle."

Strength is the product of struggle.

___

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