When Gary Bird was first introduced to wrestling in Grade 7 at Courtland Avenue Public School in Kitchener, he never expected his time on the mats would take him around the world.
But it did.
Over 25,000 matches later as both a competitor and a referee, he answered the call that only the best of the best receive. He had been selected to officiate at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
“It was surreal, the Olympics was unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” he said.
“I’ve done senior world championships but the Olympics is the pinnacle.”
Bird always knew wrestling would be a part of his life, but just two years after his introduction to the sport he’d be faced with his first bout of adversity.
Not due to a disappointing loss or an injury but because his high school, Cameron Heights Collegiate Institute, didn’t have a wrestling team.
While many spend the first year of high school focusing on figuring out where they fit in, not Bird. He was frequenting the principal’s office pleading his case for a team.
“I found out there were wrestling mats under the stage in the cafeteria,” he said.
“So I set up an interview with the principal. I’m an entrepreneur. I didn’t know it at the time but I guess I was one back then too. I was going to go in there and make it happen.”
And he did.
A year later a teacher volunteered to coach and Bird was back on the mat.
As good of a wrestler as he was, having competed at many high level events, he knew his Olympic dream as a competitor was just that, a dream.
But he also knew he was a wrestling lifer, determined to make a difference in the sport he fell in love with as a youngster.
That’s when an encounter with local referee Fred Schaller changed the trajectory of his career.
“He asked me if I’d be interested in refereeing,” Bird said.
“I was still wrestling at the time but we’d go to various provincial events on the weekend and I’d do the courses and testing to earn my certifications. I’d meet different people along the way and it just kind of started from there.”
Little did Bird know at the time, those moments on the road with Schaller put him on a different path that would lead him to an Olympic reality.
After countless hours refereeing, screaming parents and angry coaches, Bird had seen it all ahead of 2016. Well respected in the wrestling world for his levelheaded demeanor in the biggest moments, he was a perfect candidate to do the job at the highest level.
“The intensity at the Olympics, you could cut it with a knife,” Bird said.
“I say it’s like climbing to the top of Mount Everest. I made it to the top and I planted a Canadian flag. It’s unlike anything I had experienced anywhere else.”
It’s also a position that, despite requiring vast amounts of skill and time, comes without a paycheque.
“Many people think referees get paid to do the Olympic and World championships,” says Bird. “However, It is all done for the love of the sport. We all volunteer out time. In many cases the referees are paying their own way to the event as well. It’s a special group of people that I appreciate and will never forget in my lifetime.”
Even though he’s reached the summit of the sport, Bird has no plans on slowing down his involvement.
Next up for the seasoned referee, who is also a coach at Matman Wrestling Club and just wrapped up refereeing his 34th CWOSSA championship last month, is the Canadian Wrestling Championships right in his backyard at RIM Park in Waterloo from March 9 to 12, 2023.
Bird will be the lead official, responsible for organizing and overseeing the referees at the event.
It’s an opportunity he’s relishing and one he’s approaching with the same professionalism as any other he’s been tasked with working.
He also views this event as more than just a tournament. Bird sees the championships as a chance to show what the sport and the region has to offer. “This event is an incredible opportunity for Waterloo Region,” Bird explains. “For me, the Canadian Wrestling Championships is such a great opportunity to showcase wrestling in this area. And hosting the championships is inspiring for our local athletes. Hopefully, we can have an impact on a young person today. In the late 1970s and ‘80s we had Olympians coming out of here, but then it kind of faded away. Now we have four wrestling clubs so it’s a great time for the sport in the region. Wrestling makes good people first, and they are darn tough second!”