by Marissa Lorenz
A small group of pioneering young women at West Grand High School are making history as
the school district’s first all-girls wrestling team.
Junior Sage Lechman and sophomores Olivia Stefanik and Tanner Smiley attended their first meet last Saturday, December 4, at Soroco High School in Oak Creek, where they represented West Grand against teams from Soroco, East Grand, North Fork, and Eagle Valley.
The students are among a small but growing contingent of female athletes pursuing wrestling as a sanctioned women’s sport, from high schoolers, to college athletes, to Olympians.
But while women’s wrestling has been a recognized Olympic sport since 2004, as recently as the 2017-2018 school year there were only six state high school athletic associations with officially sanctioned girls’ wrestling championships, including Alaska, California, Hawaii, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington State.
Just a few years later, that number stands at 32 states that now have sanctioned girls’ wrestling divisions, each with an organized season of girls-only events and a structured post-season state championship competition.
Colorado is among those states, with the Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSAA) rolling out their first sanctioned season last year, in the 2020-2021 school year, following a two-year pilot program. Although it should be noted that Colorado’s young female athletes have been competing on boys teams for years with a handful even having qualified for state competition since 2008.
With teams popping up across the state, the three native Kremmling girls were excited about a possible opportunity even closer to home. And it was Lechman and Stefanik who decided to approach Lechman’s father, Shawn Lechman, and Mitch Lockhart, school board members and former wrestlers, about coaching them on an all-girls team.
Both girls are life-long athletes. In her high-school career alone, Lechman has participated in basketball, volleyball, track, dance, cheer, and will go to State with the West Grand Pom Squad this coming weekend. She is also the 2022 Middle Park Fair & Rodeo queen.
Stefanik has grown up skiing and snowboarding. She has participated in softball, volleyball, basketball, track, cheer, and even played baseball for a year.
And both girls tell about a long desire to add wrestling to their list of endeavors.
“I grew up in the wrestling room,” says Lechman of following her dad around when he coached wrestling. “It always looked like fun. And I wanted to do something new before I graduated.”
“I think girls have always been interested in wrestling,” explains Stefanik. “But without their own teams and without knowing how else to get involved, the closest most girls could get was being a team manager. When this opportunity became available, I took it!”
They approached a couple of other girls about forming a team, and Smiley was immediately ready to sign on.
“I never have a lot going on in the winter,” Smiley says casually and goes on to tell of freshman track as having been her first real athletic pursuit. “I found I really like my weight class. It not only helps me be better prepared for track, but it just makes me feel better physically and mentally. Wrestling looked fun and sounded like another good way to do that.”
With just a few weeks of practice on the mats, the resolute young women are still learning about the sport and about themselves.
“I’ve always liked solo activities more than team sports,” explains Smiley. “I can focus on what I’m doing and not worry about what others are doing. I like that in track and in wrestling it’s more about your personal growth in your events rather than in winning the game overall.”
And from the opposite perspective, Stefanik observes, “I’ve been into team sports my entire life. In wrestling, it got to me that it’s just me… but I still have my team behind me. It has shown me a whole new level of sport. It just sparked my eye!”
Lechman and Stefanik both competed in Soroco and both note how nervous they were.
In her first match, Lechman wrestled an athlete from North Fork who has been wrestling since seventh grade. “We became friends afterwards,” says Lechman, who lost that match but won her second match. “There’s the idea that wrestling is a ‘mean sport.’ And it’s really physical but the other girls have been really nice. Everyone has been great so far.”
“I was so nervous to go out onto the mat,” says Stefanik. “But once I got there, I just had one thing in mind–have fun. It doesn’t matter if you win or lose. And I had so much fun! Just going to Soroco for the day was a huge team bonding experience. It’s all been a great experience.”
Smiley didn’t compete on Saturday for a medical reason but was there to cheer her teammates on. “It was tons of fun to watch them compete. And when Sage won her second match, it was amazing!”
But Smiley goes on to say that winning isn’t always as great as it seems. “You’re going out there in a head-to-head combat. It’s different from other competitions I’ve done. And sometimes, even when you win, you get up and say, ‘That sucked. That hurt.’”
But when asked what motivates her to get back on the mat, she explains, “Once you get your breath back, or you’re not so tired, or that bump you got doesn’t hurt anymore, then you can say, “I did that! I won that match!’ You can appreciate it for what it was–a great experience.”
And Smiley will be on the mat this weekend for her first competition, while Stefanik may be done competing for the season, following an injury in her second match on Saturday.
“Even though I got hurt, even with a short season,” Stefanik says, “I want to go back and keep trying. It has really opened my eyes. It’s awesome to say, ‘I did it; I did something new.’”
Coach Lechman says that the season is still being finalized, as some events have already been canceled. He says the team hopes to compete in “10 tournaments and some duals, and hopefully line up a home meet.”
“I’m just really proud of these young women,” Coach Lechman says. “To take that step and do something different–not everyone will do that. It makes you really proud to be here watching them.”
To follow the West Grand Girls’ Wrestling Team, visit the calendar at wgsd.com or visit the West Grand Booster Club on Facebook.