The word conjures images of flabby, third-rate actors bouncing around a ring feigning terror and pain. Their names are Gorgeous George, Haystack Calhoun, Killer Kowalski. The main thing they have in common with athletes is that they sweat -- sometimes.

But there's a different type of wrestling. The participants may not have flashy names, and they're not actors; they are, of necessity, among the most physically fit of athletes. And Saturday a clutch of them will come from all over Virginia to slam, drive and twist one another on the mats at Fairfax's Robinson Secondary School in the state AAA high-school championships.

For anyone with the TV view of wrestling, or children who think wrestling means wrecking furniture until someone (usually Mom) winds up crying, watching inter scholastic wrestling offers an eye-opening surprise.

Most children seem to find a high-school match almost instinctively appealing. The muscular, well-conditioned wrestler isn't bionic: He's better, because he's real and appears just as strong. Plus, a wrestling match is a contest that stirs emotions children easily identify with -- pain, strain, worry, joy.

High-school wrestling matches hold up to six minutes of intense individual action, broken into three two-minute rounds with one-minute intervals in between. Wrestlers compete in weight classes, and if some of them seem large for their class it's probably because they've lost 10 pounds or more to compete at that level -- not unusual for wrestlers.

Matches are won through a pin -- one wrestler holding his opponent's shoulders to the mat for about three seconds -- or a referee's decision, giving one wrestler more points than his opponent for various moves and holds.

What you're likely to see in a typical match is a blend of strength, balance, quickness and stamina.

Scholastic wrestlers require physical power because so much of their sport is force against force. Wrestlers lean into one another, push, pull, lift: The strain is evident in their arms and faces. When they're both flat on the mat, without their legs for leverage, sheer arm strength is most evident. When they're standing, watch their legs. The wrestler who suddenly steps backward and can't brace his legs is likely to find himself headed for the mat.

That's where balance comes in. A wrestler can compensate for having less physical strength than his opponent if he has better balance. A finesse wrestler who maintains his balance can use a power wrestler's own strength against him.

That's where quickness comes in. When an advantage gained through balance or strength is felt, a wrestler must react immediately. Top wrestlers, such as those who will be vying for the state championships, seem to sense their advantage instnctively. They react in a furious instant, attacking the area of weakness with a carefully executed move that must be driven home forcefully and precisely.

Of course, opponents counter moves with other moves, which is where stamina comes in. Fatigue means a loss of balance, strength and quickness -- weaknesses easily exploited by a better-conditioned wrestelr. The cool, soft mat sometimes holds a perverse appeal to a hot, weary wrestler, who may give in to its comforts and wind up pinned. A wrestler can't afford to have his wind fail him when he calls up a burst of energy, or his move will lack force and speed.

At the tournament, wrestlers may have to win several matches to get to the final round, so get there early, pick a favorite in a couple of different weight classes and watch their progress throughout the day.