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Grappling with an identity crisis

Ex-wrestler using promotional skills to trumpet town's recovery from flood

Vern May on the new Souris suspension bridge.

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Vern May on the new Souris suspension bridge. (SUPPLIED)

Vern May, seen here in pink trunks as wrestler Vance Nevada, is the new economic development officer for the Souris-Glenwood Community Development Corp.

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Vern May, seen here in pink trunks as wrestler Vance Nevada, is the new economic development officer for the Souris-Glenwood Community Development Corp. (BILL REDEKOP / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

SOURIS -- It took Vern May four years to perfect the body slam, but it was the piledriver that finished his career as a professional wrestler.

The body slam is where you maximize the surface of your body that hits the mat, after being flung head over heels by your opponent. That not only disperses the impact of the fall but makes the loudest, hurtin'-est sound.

The piledriver is when the opponent picks you up upside down, puts your head between his thighs, and drops into a sitting position, driving your head into the mat. It's not supposed to actually drive your head into the mat, but things don't always go as planned.

Being on the receiving end of too many piledrivers caused a neck injury and eventually forced May to retire.

May, a.k.a. Vance Nevada, is the new economic development officer for the Souris-Glenwood Community Development Corp., and he thinks the region has taken too many piledrivers to its reputation, too.

"I looked up the Town of Souris on the Internet and the first things that came up were stories about the 2011 flood," said May.

He wants people to know Souris has recovered and is back in the ring. The longest suspension bridge in Canada has been up since September -- the old one was destroyed in the flood. It's got three museums, a cinema in the historic Avalon Theatre, the renowned Rock Shop and its quarry for rock hounding, and the famous apple fritters and chocolate chip granola bars at the Minary Homestyle Bakery.

In July, its railway museum will unveil the former railway simulator from CP Rail in Calgary that was used to instruct conductors. The public will be able to experience what it's like to drive a diesel locomotive. The town is also working to get a new hotel so it can host more events.

May grew up in Souris and literally ran away with a touring wrestling show, or at least his dreams did. While volunteering at a wrestling card in Souris, he was put in touch with a Somerset man, Ernest Rheault, who agreed to teach the 16-year-old the rudimentary wrestling moves. Rheault had a professional-scale wrestling ring in a Quonset in his backyard.

May recalled going through training. "It was right out of Rocky IV" in which Sylvester Stallone trains out of a barn in Siberia, said May.

His first match was at Chalmers Community Club in Winnipeg. His career choice was a disappointment to his parents -- May and his father almost came to blows over it. It took two years before his dad, who became his biggest fan, saw him in a match.

May, 38, spent the next 20 years away in Winnipeg, Red Deer, Alta., and Vancouver. In that period, he wrestled 1,500 matches, more than anyone else of his generation in Canada. He fashioned himself into the bad guy, always playing foil to the local hero, so he could get the most work. Wrestling personas, he said, "are really yourself with the volume turned up."

Wrestlers in Canada have to keep second jobs. To make a living off it, wrestlers have to break into the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) organization in the United States. May's audition with the WWE was scuttled when he was turned back at the border for not having a work visa.

He was to audition in televised matches on Monday Night Raw and Smackdown, but work visas are almost impossible to get without a contract for ongoing work. So Canadian wrestlers try to slip across for auditions. If they get hired, the WWE then takes care of their visa issues.

May got caught at the Seattle border crossing and was barred from entering the U.S. for five years. "I remember standing in the kitchen telling my wife my life is over," he recalled.

The thing about May that set him up for future employment is he was always more than a wrestler. In 2010 he wrote the book Wrestling in the Canadian West, a history of wrestling in Western Canada, published by Crowbar Press.

A bigger accomplishment was setting up the Canadian National Wrestling Alliance, banding together the wrestling companies across the country, such as Winnipeg's Canadian Wrestling Elite. The launch and running of the association became a second job for May and included tasks such as writing announcers' TV scripts, lining up venues and producing a magazine for the association.

His hiring last October is paying off, said RM of Glenwood Reeve Sandy Sanderson.

"He was not only a wrestler but involved in promotion as well. Quite often those kind of promotional skills are needed in trying to sell a community to residents and business," Sanderson said.

The community will be showcased the last weekend of June in a gala surrounding the June 28 official ribbon cutting for the Souris suspension bridge.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

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