Ithaca, N.Y. – When Richie Burke joined the varsity wrestling team in the 7th grade, his goal was to have a winning record by the time he graduated.
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Six years and over 230 matches later, Burke has accomplished his goal — and much more.
Last Wednesday, the 18-year-old surpassed the 200-win mark after a victory in his home gym at Ithaca High School. Only one other person in Ithaca High School history has that same achievement.
“He’s got great character,” said his coach Eric Parker. “He’s who you’d want to be the captain of your team.”
Starting from a young age
When Burke was a little over 3 years old, he began wrestling under the supervision of his father, a former wrestler, who coached him at the “pee wee” level. Fifteen years, and four Section IV championships later, Burke says he is still motivated to do well by his father.
Whether or not Burke wins the match, he always helps his opponent off the mat, said Karin Burke, Richie’s mother.
“My husband has always told Richie — ‘You respect your opponent, because one day, you might be laying on the ground,’” she says.
“People will say ‘if I lose to anybody, I want to lose to Richie Burke’” … “That’s the one thing Richie Burke is known for — he respects his opponents.”
With over 300 awards won, many of which are kept on display in his family’s den, his mother once asked her son what he was going to do with the plethora of trophies, plaques, and belts he’d been awarded over the years.
“I’m gonna pop off all the plates (that have his name on it), put them in one place and start circulating these trophies to other kids so they can feel what its like to get a trophy,” he told his mother. “When they raise your hand, it’s different.”
‘He does the extras’
In the seventh grade, Burke began wrestling for the varsity team under coach Eric Parker, skipping over the modified level. In the past 15 years, Parker said, only three seventh-graders have ever competed at the varsity level for Ithaca.
With about an 86% win percentage (203 wins out of 235 matches), the 138-pound Burke has surpassed his original goal in an exceptional way.
Burke estimates that he devotes about 25 hours per week to wrestling — some of which is spent with Ryan Ciotoli, his trainer at “Ultimate Athletics” in the Ithaca mall since Burke was in the 8th grade.
“He does the extras,” the former Ithaca College wrestling coach said of Burke. “He does his high school practice, then he comes up here and we get our workouts in.”
“He’s really gone above and beyond.”
Alexander Crooker, a former captain of the Ithaca varsity wrestling team, has watched about 80 of Burke’s matches. Even though Burke is two years younger than Crooker, Crooker said that he was still impressed by Burke’s talents.
“You could tell from the moment you watched him wrestle” that he was gifted, Crooker said. “He always manages to kind of get the upper-hand on opponents that he wrestles by being very alert and aware of the situation.”
“Even he was teaching me stuff … He does amazing each year and then the next year, he exceeds expectations. He beats himself every year.”
Can he win a state title?
For a person that already achieved so much in the wrestling world, what more could he hope to win?
“A state title,” Burke said. “Last year, I was close — I made it to the semis at states, but I ended up losing to the returning state champ.”
An Ithaca High School wrestler hasn’t won a state championship since 1999, when Brandon Lehman won his third state title, according to Coach Parker.
Both Parker and Ciotoli believe that Burke has was it takes to be the next champion, however.
“He’s beaten state champs in the past and competed well on a national level … he can definitely win,” Ciotoli said.
‘I just try to have fun’
For a sport as intricate as wrestling, Burke tries to prepare for matches in a simple way.
“I think positive,” Burke said. “I just try to have fun. I don’t like creating any stress.”
Burke attributes his success to the hard work he’s put into his career, and said that those who get upset when they lose need to just work harder.
“A lot of kids, when they start wrestling, they get upset because they’re losing,” he said. “What I see is that they don’t practice hard–you have to practice hard in order to get what you want.”
Parents of other wrestlers recall watching and being impressed by Burke’s talents on the mats.
“Richie’s wrestling will literally take your breath away,” said Christianne McMillan White, the mother of another wrestler on the team. “He is so skilled and fast and smart.”
“He just does amazing and surprising things every time he wrestles,” she added.
Burke hopes to wrestle in college, and is still deciding where he’ll go after high school — he’s considering SUNY Cortland, Binghamton, and Ithaca College, among others — but after college, Burke only knows what he doesn’t want to do.
“When I get out of school,” he said, “I have to do something active. I can’t be in an office.”