Caroline Slember never saw a wrestling match before her first practice last season as a member of the Foxes team. A year later, she and her pioneering teammates are making history as part of the school’s first all-female squad, and it’s something she never anticipated.
“The sport of wrestling wasn’t on my mind in the slightest,” says Caroline, a junior. “I never really thought it was an option. I first started because I saw (junior) Yuqi (Zhou) go into a practice after our track practice.”
Caroline is one of four experienced wrestlers, which also includes Yuqi, senior Ava McCaffrey and junior Andrea Wang. They are the heart of the team and have taken on roles as mentors and role models, especially for the girls who are new to the sport.
“I remember how excited I was last year when I got my first win,” says Caroline, who wants the younger girls to experience that same feeling. “This year I am a lot less scared to go after points and I don’t mind getting bruised a little. I am also finally solidifying all the basics I learned last year. But I think what’s most important (on an all-female team) is being able to know you have someone to rely on who understands what you’re going through.”
Coach Laura Ward, whose experience comes partly from being part of a wrestling family and nearly a decade spent as a scorekeeper, says each member of the core group adds something special to the squad.
“Ava is a leader on the team,” says Coach Ward. “She is always willing to help a new member and has a great work ethic. Yuqi is determined. She puts in so much work and strives to get better. Andrea is very intense in competition but likes to keep things light in practice, and Caroline is quiet, but constantly works hard.”
Hard Work, But Worth It
Ava says sticking with a sport was something she had never experienced before last year. She played a lot of different sports growing up, but after a season or so, she’d quickly lose interest – until she discovered wrestling.
“Before last year, I don’t think I even knew what wrestling was,” says Ava. “I might have heard about it once or twice, but that was it. I never expected that I would join the sport, but I don’t think any other sports have intrigued me as much.”
Ava faced a big learning curve, but now she’s using that experience to spur her progress on the mat.
“I noticed last year that I would give up because I wasn’t getting to do the moves I wanted,” she says. “That lack of energy stemmed from being too slow and not applying enough pressure. I am working much harder to improve my mental and physical strength.”
Since then, she’s starting to figure out her strong points and what works best for her. It’s paid off. At the team’s first invitational of the season, the 2023 Butler Girls Tournament, Andrea was the competitor who pinned an opponent this time.
“I like finding new ways of doing things,” she says. “I think a lot of us on the team have so much potential.”
At that same invitational, five Lady Foxes girls won at least one match, and of those five, three wrestlers won two matches. In addition, Andrea and Yuqi each had two pins, and first-time sophomore wrestler Mira Owens’ aggressiveness and determination resulted in two pins in her favor as well.
Yuqi is riding on the momentum she gained throughout last year when she came off the mat with several pins and wins. One of her goals is to continue getting better, but for some reasons that go beyond the gymnasium.
“Wrestling gives me another goal to focus on and to work toward, which I find very important in my life,” says Yuqi. “Having set goals allows me to stay strong and keep going forward no matter what happens in my day-to-day life. Even on difficult days, I know I must show up to practice physically and mentally, which helps keep me grounded.”
Those daily practices start by introducing one or two new moves or techniques, and then they are worked into their drills. They spend a bit of time doing “live wrestling” at the end of practices when they simulate matches with shorter time periods.
“They are all hard workers and have really impressed me with what they have learned in such a short amount of time,” coach Ward says.
“What I try to do is show the younger girls how fun wrestling can be,” Ava says. “I’ve noticed that no matter what it comes to, these girls are very dedicated to what they love and are willing to put in the work to succeed. They are some of the most powerful people I know.”