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Mighty Mites Of The Mat PDF Print E-mail
Written by Mike Terry, Contributing Writer   
Thursday, 12 April 2012 01:36

Girls' Youth Wrestling Is A Growing Sport In The Valley – And Elsewhere

MIKE TERRY/SFVS

Girl Power -- (l-r) Evelyne Vazquez, Tatyana Fuentes, Vivian Garcia and Desiree Fuentes all won medals at a recent youth wrestling competition in Fresno.

MIKE TERRY/SFVS

Moving Toward Bigger Things -- Sarah Saenz, a four year wrestler at San Fernando High team, is being offered college scholarships.

Desiree Fuentes was doing her best to explain to a visitor how she recently won a state amateur wrestling championship.

"I listened to my coach, who kept saying 'do a shoot to the leg, a cow-catcher, knock them down, go behind and then a cradle," she said.

If you're not a wrestler, none of those terms will mean anything. But make no mistake; Desiree Fuentes is a wrestler, and a state champion – at the age of eight.

And there are other girl wrestlers like her, such as her older sister Destiny, 9, and half-sister Tatyana, also 8, or her friends and teammates Evelyne Vasquez, and Vivian Garcia, both 8-years-old.

Interest in the sport of wrestling among young girls is growing, not just in the San Fernando Valley but also nationally. According to USA Wrestling, a governing body for amateur wrestlers, an estimated 10,000 high school age girls are now competing, and not just on boys' teams. (The Los Angeles City Section will offer girls' wrestling as a sport for the first time in the 2012-13 academic year.)

There are colleges and universities now offering varsity scholarships in wrestling to women, even though the NCAA does not yet officially recognize it. "The opportunity for women to wrestle in college is bigger than it's ever been," said Gary Abbott, director of communications and special projects for USA Wrestling.

Women wrestlers began competing for Olympic medals back in the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, Greece. Their sport is part of 2012 Summer Games in London, England.

It's one of the reasons John Paez, director of the Valley based nonprofit organization Crossroads, is passionate about providing youth wrestling programs, for boys as well as girls.

"I grew up in the neighborhood," said Paez, who graduated from San Fernando High in 1977. He said he came to high school with a temper and a knack for getting in trouble, but eventually calmed down under the tutelage of Sam De John, a history teacher and wrestling coach.

"Wrestling and learning under Samuel De John opened my life," Paez said. "Both gave me a whole different concept of how to live."

Paez – who has six sons who wrestled at San Fernando High, and has a day job as an aircraft mechanic – has started spending two evening hours every Monday, Wednesday and Friday in the San Fernando High gym with several volunteers, teaching conditioning and wrestling moves to children as young as age 4.

"I've seen kids come in as little butterballs. But if they stay with the program they thin out pretty fast," said Al Del Toro, a wrestling parent and program volunteer.

The Crossroads program, in its first year here, is free; all parents have to pay for is liability insurance, at a cost of $15.

Among the volunteers are San Fernando High wrestling coach Chad Solano, and Los Angeles school policemen Will German and Jess Arana.

Girls Like Trophies, Too

Desiree won her championship medal in the girls' 60- pound division the weekend of March 16-18 in Fresno, at a state meet sponsored by the State of California Wrestling Association for the Youth (SCWAY).

"I want to stay in the 60s and 70s (weight division)," she said, blissfully unaware she has more growing to do. When asked if the bruise mark on her leg hurt, Desiree said "no" sweetly, but firmly.

Vazquez, who won the girls' 50-pound division in the SCWAY tournament, said she became involved in wrestling a year ago "because it's fun and I can get trophies."

She said she wrestled two girls "and I got to pin one of them." In the title match, Vazquez outscored her opponent.

At first she only told her mother about wanting to learn how to wrestle. But she wants to keep on doing it. "I'm having fun and I've gotten stronger," she said, although she was too shy to show a bicep.

Tatyana, who placed third in the 55-pound division, had no trouble showing the growing muscle in her arm. Still, she had to be prodded a bit to partake in the sport she started learning a year ago.

"At first I didn't want to get on the mats because I was too shy. But now it's okay," Tatyana said

"The best thing is when you go to tournaments, and you have all your moves down, and then you pin them and you get awards."

Garcia, who placed second in the 50-pound division, started wrestling at age 6. She doesn't know how many wrestling holds she's learned, but she definitely has more confidence in herself.

And the boys don't tease her as much "because I'm stronger."

Paez likes hearing things like that.

"[Wrestling] builds selfesteem, self-confidence, builds character," he said. "They can become aggressive, and they know how to win. It can establish principles they can use in life.

At the same time, Paez said, "We also teach them not to be bullies, [instead] protect those who can't defend themselves."

Great advice

Jose Fuentes, the father of Desiree, Destiny and Tatyana, said Sylmar High wrestling coach Victor Solano told him the sport would okay for his high-energy brood.

"The girls have always been real active," said Jose, who works as a teacher's aide at Sylmar. "I asked if they wanted to try it and they said yes. I thought Tatyana might quit; she's the shy one, didn't like to get hit. But the first day, Destiny and Desiree were 'oh we like it.' The coach talked to Desiree a little, and that's all she needed.

"Now they all love it."

He admits he's surprised at how much his girls enjoy the activity.

"But at the same time I can't believe they're that tough. It's definitely helped them become real confident, especially (Tatyana). It's like night and day."

Jose was so impressed with the results he enrolled his son Domenik, age 4, in the program.

"But he's a little behind. And he knows the girls can beat him up," Jose said, laughing.

The Role Model

As the younger girls continue to grow and develop, they might turn into Sarah Saenz.

Saenz, 19, a San Fernando High graduate, began wrestling at age 6. In high school she was good enough to wrestle four years on the boys' team, which is a perennial City Section championship contender.

She is currently considering wrestling scholarship offers from North Dakota and Tennessee. She said she would decide after competing in a Florida tournament in May, where she will meet the North Dakota and Tennessee coaches.

Making an Olympic team is another goal.

"I started because of my older brother Hector, who wrestled here," said Saenz, who is a volunteer instructor. "He did it for a year but then he stopped."

Saenz may have a baby face, but the years of conditioning and competing have created a solid, 140-pound physique. She usually wrestles at two to five pounds below that weight.

"I like being part of a team, the conditioning," she said. "You have to be physically strong and mentally smart. That's what intrigues me the most."

She doesn't consider herself a pioneer or a role model, although she is probably the latter. But she would like to see more women in the sport.

"I didn't start wrestling girls until the 10th grade," she said. "And not a lot of girls are as tough as the boys are because there haven't been that many."

She doesn't remember the first time she defeated a boy opponent. "But I did make some of them cry," she said, smiling.

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Last Updated on Thursday, 12 April 2012 02:43