Local wrestlers make hall of merit

Local wrestlers make hall of merit

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Two local LGBT wrestlers will go down in history, thanks to recognition from a national organization.

Dennis Spillman and Michael LoFurno will be inducted into the Wrestlers Without Borders 2009 Don Jung Hall of Merit.

WWB created the Hall of Merit two years ago in memory of Jung, founder of San Francisco’s LGBT wrestling organization, to honor those who display “extraordinary commitment and selflessness” to the sport, said WWB chair Roger Brigham.

Spillman and LoFurno were influential in the founding and continued success of the Philadelphia Spartans wrestling club, earning the WWB members’ nomination to the Hall of Merit. A committee narrowed the field down to 10 finalists, then selected Spilllman and LoFurno as two of this year’s six inductees.

Brigham said both men exemplify “Endurance and Excellence,” the theme of the 2009 Hall of Merit, and have displayed a “sustained commitment that inspired others.”

“They were there to create Philadelphia Spartans and they have been there through the years to lead the coaching efforts, to lead the membership and fundraising drives and to shape the culture of the club,” Brigham said.

Spillman, 58, helped found the Spartans in 1991, alongside John Necci and 2008 Hall of Merit inductee Rick Van Tassel.

“I did judo in high school and afterward, so this was something I had kind of always wanted to get involved with,” Spillman said. “At the time there was a new club in New York, and I knew one of the guys that started it, John Necci, and he came down here so he, Ricky and I decided to start our own in Philadelphia.”

Spillman spent about four years with the Spartans, competing as well as coaching, before moving to Arizona, where he founded an LGBT wrestling club in Phoenix. He returned to the area six years later to care for his ailing parents and, this time, focused more on assisting with the development of the social and fundraising components of the team instead of competing.

After his return, Spillman also got involved with Team Philadelphia, the umbrella organization that represents all local LGBT sports clubs, and became a delegate to the Federation of Gay Games.

Spillman said he was honored, yet taken aback, when WWB notified him that he was nominated for the Hall of Merit.

“I was shocked,” he said. “It was never something that I saw happening.”

LoFurno, 51, has also been involved with the Spartans since the club’s inception. Now the Spartans’ treasurer, he was the club’s first member and is the longest continuous member. He said that while he had no previous wrestling experience, he was initially drawn to the organization for the physical outlet it provides.

“I was the first person that showed up, and I decided to go pretty much to just be able to get more physical exercise outside of the gym; the gym’s a static situation, while wrestling is more hands-on,” he said. “The guys that started the club all seemed like good guys, and I was really interested in sharing in the enthusiasm that they all had about the club.”

LoFurno has medaled in numerous local competitions and received his first Gay Games medal — silver — in 2006 after competing in all four of the national quadrennial tournaments since the Spartans’ founding.

LoFurno said that in his 18 years with the Spartans, the goals of the organization have not changed much.

“We’ve tried hard to maintain the spirit of the club from the beginning, which was all about competition but also fun and education,” he said. “It’s a place people can go to without any sort of anxiety. We try to make new people, of all skill levels, welcome. Sports in general can be a scary thing for a lot of guys, so we’ve always tried to make this very accessible.”

LoFurno said he appreciates that WWB recognized and is honoring his longstanding commitment to the Spartans and LGBT wrestling.

“I was excited and kind of glad, because I’ve been doing a lot of behind-the-scenes work for a long time, so having the national organization notice that you’ve been involved and been around, still plowing forward is extremely gratifying,” he said.

Van Tassel said both inductees were perfect for the honor.

“They’ve both been recognized for their contribution to wrestling and it’s certainly deserved. They have long, active and really illustrious careers in our local wrestling community.”

Jen Colletta can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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