by Chanel Ward
Gilbert “Gil” Chávez, Sr. had a talent for wrestling, and as he progressed in life, he developed the gift of helping to create champions out of the students that he coached in wrestling for nearly 35 years at West High School in Denver, Colorado.
Gil, Sr. coached wrestling from 1977-2011, and served as head coach from 1984-2002. He continued as a volunteer coach from 2009 until his untimely death in 2011.
Mr. Chávez was quite the champion wrestler growing up himself; he won the city championship 112-pound division twice for West High School in 1966 and again the following year, he placed first in the AAU Junior Olympic Tournament in 1967 for Arvada West High School and had a 40 win, 5 loss record in college for Northeastern Jr. College and Metropolitan State College, where he also served as the captain of the 1969-1970 wrestling team.
Gil, Sr. met the love of his life, Virginia, freshman year at West High School. They both graduated and attended college, Gil even received his Masters’ Degree from Norwich University in Vermont where he was “very successful with his studies and with wrestling,” remembers Mrs. Chávez. The pair married while still in college and went on to raise their two children, Gil Chávez, Jr. and Christina Ingrum in the West High School neighborhood.
Mrs. Chávez allowed me insight into the life of her late husband, including his passion for wrestling beyond the mat.
“It was really an honor,” said Mrs. Chávez.
Gil Sr. mentored and guided many students, but it is his own children who had the greatest exposure of all, here is what his family shared with me about Gil’s life.
How was it growing up and sharing Gil Sr. with so many kids who really looked up to him as a father figure?
Virginia: As a father, there wasn’t a greater father and that goes without saying. A lot of kids looked at him like a father figure. I went to their tournaments, they came over here to sometimes work out, he and I even did tutoring to help them stay at grade level to wrestle. So, he did a lot extra and I helped him do those things if I could. They were always welcome into our home, he talked to the kids and gave them advice; perseverance was a big thing that he always instilled within the kids, to never give up and that their life is their own. It was like a family thing, because we all attended the tournaments and the wrestling and we were all a part of it as a family. When you make it work and you enjoy it, it doesn’t seem like work, or it doesn’t seem like it’s a hassle, it’s just a part of your life.
Christina: In elementary school, I was asked to write about “my hero” and without any hesitation, my dad came to mind right away. As a very young child, I knew my dad was special. He had a gift in connecting with others. He was genuine and beyond thoughtful. It takes a special kind of person who takes the time to invest in others the way he did. He was able to make his children, wife, grandkids, extended family, students and his wrestling team feel valued, important and special. It’s admirable how he was able to extend himself to so many people. It didn’t feel like I was sharing him. I was “coach’s daughter” and happy to be so. He was the best dad a girl could hope for. He listened, gave good advice and was sincere. As an adult, I called and talked to my dad every day. We were never short on things to talk about. My life will forever be rich because of the foundation he provided for me.
Gil, Jr.: No, because I wrestled as well, and I coached with him from 1992 to the end of the 90’s and we coached together again in 2006 up until the time of the accident and then I continued to coach after that, I just retired this past year. So, we have a pretty long history of coaching at West [High School]. My son was also a wrestler and after he got hurt, he ended up coaching with us in 2008 up until just last year.
Why do you think Gil, Sr. was so successful at molding champions?
Virginia: I think he was dedicated, he liked doing it, he liked the kids and it was just instilled within him to help the kids out and he loved the sport of wrestling. He was a good role model and we still talked to a lot of the kids when they became adults and they still respected him, called him coach and would do anything in the world for him.
Christina: Hard work, commitment, discipline, consistency and persistence. My dad often talked to the wrestlers about “ganas”, having the desire to work hard to achieve and become a champion. He believed in being on time, doing what you say you’re going to do and following through. He implemented high standards and taught and demonstrated respect. He dedicated his life to the sport. He was passionate about wrestling and lived it year round. Kids on his team had the chance to be part of something great.
Gil, Jr.: He used to want kids to get a fair shot in life and so he used wrestling as way to build character and discipline in kids. He was also a teacher and then later on became a guidance counselor as well; he just really put extra effort into it. He also ran a program through the NCA called the National Youths Sports Program where they’d get 500 kids from Denver together and keep them busy during the summer and winter through sports.
The lasting impact that Gil Sr. had on all of the young men that he coached and influenced over a quarter century really speaks on his character, how was he so successful at reaching these young men and keeping them engaged in wrestling?
Virginia: He just had a real good rapport with the kids and the parents. The parents were wonderful, they would keep in communication with my husband, the kids just looked up to him and respected him, and he respected them. That’s what made it happen, he was for real. He really cared about the kids and it wasn’t just about wrestling but about their future and about how they’re doing today.
Christina: My dad had strong character, morals and didn’t believe in short cuts. He held high standards and truly believed in the kids he worked with. He went above and beyond to coach and guide the wrestlers. He was there for the highs and the lows and taught them to be prideful and resilient. His dedication to the sport and the youth he worked with is second to none.
Gil, Jr.: Because he wanted to not just be a coach at an inner city school, but he wanted to raise it up to a whole new level, so he did. We had at least ten city district champion teams, just about every year that we weren’t first, we were second. We had 25-30 all state kids, a couple state champions and his big goal was for really a lot of those kids to be successful later in life, go to college and not get wrapped up in the shennanigans that go on in West Denver.
Is there anything that you’d like add?
Virginia: We miss the head of our family but my family is still united. We love each other and we are there for each other, we are very blessed and we recognize it. And I’d just like to say that his [Gil Sr.] sense of humor was overwhelming, as was his love of God, family and community; if he could help anybody he would do it.
My dad’s big word was perseverance, he really thought that if he could teach perseverance to kids and people that they could get through anything.
Gil Chávez, Jr.
Christina: My dad’s positive energy was magnetic. People wanted to be around him. As a family, we looked forward to Saturday dinners, fishing trips, game nights and road trips. My dad had a zest for life who enjoyed fishing, karaoke and dancing and traveling with my mom. Aside from being the best dad, he was also a great grandfather.
Gil, Jr.: He was someone who cared about people, especially people form West Denver, he wanted people to have a fair shot and had a soft heart for Chicano people, but he didn’t limit it there.
My dad’s big word was perseverance, he really thought that if he could teach perseverance to kids and people that they could get through anything. They say it’s easy when everything is going well, but he wanted a lot of kids in West Denver to overcome challenges and become successful.
Gil’s brother, Eloy Chávez said about his older brother, “Gil was my role model, he graduated high school, he was an awesome wrestler and went on to college and I really looked up to him. I saw what he was doing in the community and with all of the kids that he helped and the difference he made in so many peoples’ lives,” said Eloy, who followed in his brother’s footsteps and went on to earn his Masters’ degree to eventually open the nonprofit charter A.C.E. Community Challenge School in the early 90’s. Gil worked with Eloy at A.C.E. after he retired, a memory that Eloy will forever cherish, along with so many others.
Gil Sr. was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame Colorado Chapter on May 11th, where his family, friends and many of the students that he once mentored attended in his honor.
Chanel Ward is an Independent Reporter for The Weekly Issue/El Semanario.
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