CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa - Like the grand poobah presiding over a lodge meeting, Ron Geist sat on his chair in the Kubasaki wrestling team’s corner of the mat, observing Wednesday’s season-opening dual meet against Kadena with his trusty aide Justin Cook at his side, hollering instructions.
It was a rough night at the office for the Dragons, who fell to the Panthers 45-15. But that Geist was even at matside watching would have been considered unthinkable as little as three months ago, when he couldn’t walk without assistance or use his right arm or hand.
Geist, Kubasaki’s third-year wrestling coach, is recovering from a stroke suffered June 17. But he insists the malady and his rehabilitation won’t hinder him from his duties as wrestling coach and school choir master.
“I had a lot of things I wanted to get back to,” Geist said Tuesday by phone. “I wanted to get back to my life, to my family, get back to my students and my wrestling team. Those were the motivators, family, music, program, wrestling team, motivated me to work really hard to recover.”
And little by little, with every passing day, he’s proving that you just can’t keep a good coach down.
Geist, 55, of Britton, S.D., has spent almost 14 years in DODDS, after working seven years in Guam’s public Department of Education and some years in Minnesota before that. He and his wife of nearly 30 years, Christine, a culinary arts teacher at Kubasaki, have parented three children.
After teaching and coaching at Zama American for seven years, Geist came to Kubasaki four years ago and in 2010-11 he and Cook inherited the throne of a wrestling program that leads the Pacific with 21 Far East Tournament team titles and 92 individual gold medals. A Kubasaki wrestler failed to win a title in only three Far Easts since 1976.
One of those years was 2009-10, and since Geist’s and Cook’s arrival, the program has gone on an upswing, coaches and wrestlers say, despite the one-sided outcome of Wednesday’s dual meet.
“We’re doing really well and we have a shot at Far East,” said two-time Far East champ Steven Walter. “All the other things he’s involved in, he coaches and teaches them well. He raises things up.”
While Geist handles mainly the team’s administrative tasks along with talking to and motivating the team, Cook serves as the on-mat guy, imparting his knowledge of skill and technique. To them, that makes them the perfect pair.
“We make a good combination,” said Cook, who coached at Waterford-Kettering High in Michigan before coming overseas.
“We seldom disagree on things,” Geist said. “The things he teaches, I totally agree with. When I was younger, I was the guy on the mat and the coach was doing what I do now.”
It almost wasn’t to be. Relaxing at his off-base Okinawa home on June 17, Geist reached for a glass of iced tea. Then, he said, his whole right side “disappeared” as he fell off the sofa.
“I remember everything about that day,” he said.
He lost feeling and movement in his right side, briefly lost his speech but gained that back quickly.
He stayed at U.S. Naval Hospital Okinawa until June 30, when he was medevaced to St. Jude Hospital in Fullerton, Calif., and was stabilized sufficiently to begin rehabilitation.
As his mobility and strength came back, he told himself: “I’m going to work at it and see how much I can get.”
While the thoughts of getting back to a normal life served as motivation, it was far easier said than done. “The hardest thing is, you’re just tired all the time,” Geist said. “You get tired more easily. I don’t have my normal stamina.”
He returned to Okinawa three months ago, and to this day continues to work on recovering full function of his right side. He was told in California, he said, that it might take a full year to get it all back.
“I can walk without a cane, my arm is responding very well, I can already write my name and do other things and I’ve noticed a lot of improvements” in his leg, Geist said. “It keeps getting better, so I’m encouraged by that.”
And as he’s encouraged by his progress, so, too, is he excited by the prospect of a wrestling team with Walter, returning 215-pound Far East champion Fred Suniga and a cast of experienced veterans challenging for a 22nd team title.
“We have to wrestle, we have to be smart, we have to avoid injuries,” Geist said. “We have the athletes who can do a really good job this year.”
Will he be there?
“Of course,” he said. “Three months ago, I couldn’t walk. My goodness. By February, I’ll be much stronger.”