By David Fong
Regional Sports Editor
COVINGTON — The first time Eric Vanderhorst looked down at his infant son cradled in his arms, he saw a world of possibilities ahead of the tiny bundle of life with the cherubic face.
There was a big, wide world waiting out there for Cael Vanderhorst, and his father wanted him to explore all of it.
“Really, with all of our kids, my wife (Wendy) and I liked them to get exposed to as many things as possible,” said Eric, the Covington High School wrestling coach. “We always had one rule — they had to participate in some sort of activity. But we never told them what they had to do. We would give them lots of options. We’d tell them, ‘Hey, here’s soccer. Or hey, here’s karate.’ They could choose what they wanted to do.
“We wanted them to do different activities, because of the social development aspect. But it didn’t matter what it was. If they had wanted to go into something different like music or art, that would have been fine, too. It didn’t have to be sports. We just wanted them to do something they would enjoy.”
Cael dabbled in a number of sports, but eventually he came back to the one place it seemed he’d always end up — on the wrestling mat.
“I played other sports when I was a kid, but I always knew wrestling was my favorite,” Cael said. “I think I knew this is what I was always going to do.”
This weekend, Cael — with his father in his corner coaching him — will be competing at the Ohio High School Athletic Association state wrestling championships in Columbus for the second year in a row, having placed eighth at 113 pounds last season. He’s a favorite to place again this year and, if he can stay healthy, eventually become just the second four-time placer in school history.
He’ll enter competition at the Schottenstein Center with his father by his side and a family legacy on his shoulders.
The Vanderhorst name has been synonymous with wrestling at Covington pretty much from the sport’s beginning at the school. Eric is one of five brothers to come through the Buccaneer athletic program. Four of those brothers wrestled for coaches Jack Schwamberger and Tom Barbee in the sport’s nascent day. Oldest brother Chris was a basketball player, but then his younger four brothers all wrestled for the Buccaneers.
Craig was the most decorated of the brothers, having placed third at state in both 1983 and 1984. Eric was a two-time state qualifier in the early 1990s, while Todd qualified in 1995. Another brother, Rob, just missed qualifying for state.
“My older brothers really are the ones who introduced us to wrestling,” Eric said. “When we were little kids, we would go to all of their matches. When we were at home, we were always in the living room brawling with one another.”
Cael said he was aware of his family’s storied wrestling legacy but never felt any pressure from his father or uncles to go into the “family business.” It would be a conscious choice he would make himself at a very young age; Eric says he has pictures of his sons, Cael and younger brother Chase, as toddlers at wrestling practices wearing oversize headgear and sucking on pacifiers.
“I knew what my family had done, but I never really felt any pressure,” Cael said. “They never told me it was something I had to do. It was something I wanted to do. I love the sport.”
Just to be on the safe side, however, Eric gradually introduced the sport to his son.
Rather than push Cael into the blast furnace of competitive youth wrestling, Eric had him start in a largely non-competitive youth organization that only saw him wrestle 10-15 matches that first season. Year by year, he let Cael attend more camps and wrestle at a more competitive level. The slow and steady approach has paid off, as by the time Cael arrived in high school last winter, he was one of the best in the state in his weight class.
Just as the Vanderhorsts have niftily navigated the tightrope between “too much, too soon” and “not nearly enough,” so too have they managed to forge a healthy coach-son relationship.
“I think what was fortunate for me is that I had been coaching high school kids for 19 years before I coached my son, which was a huge benefit for me,” Eric said. “I have seen a lot of parent-kid interactions. The one thing I always want to make sure of is that he knows I love him. But I try to treat him just like I do all of my other wrestlers. The big thing we try to do here is developing our kids into the best versions of themselves they can be. We want to keep developing kids and allow them to be the best they can — we worry about that more than we do results.
“Honestly, Cael and I don’t talk about wrestling that much at home. We try to keep that separate. If we do talk about wrestling, it’s as fans of the sport. We can be watching the NCAA wrestling tournament and we’ll talk about that, but that’s about it. At home, he’s my son.”
Cael said it’s the perfect working relationship.
“It’s nice; I like it,” he said of having his father as a coach. “He doesn’t give me any special treatment, but it’s nice to have him right there for all of my matches. He’s always right there for me when I come off the mat.”
It’s likely the Vanderhorst wrestling tradition will continue for at least a few more years to come. Chase was a junior high school state qualifier. Their younger sister Ramse is in the fourth grade and plays a variety of sports, although she claims she can “whup her brothers” in their home wrestling matches.
Ultimately, though, whatever they decide will be their own decisions.
It is, after all, a world full of possibilities.
Contact David Fong at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @thefong