Wrestling with other members of the hometown Popeye Wrestling Club is one thing. Going to a national meet was intimidating, but also inspiring for five Homer wrestlers.
“We had a slow start. Our first three matches were losses. I think the girls were shell-shocked when we first got there and I was questioning if we even belonged in the same gym as these other girls. They were brutal,” said Coach Todd Cook of first reactions after arriving at the Pre-Season National War of the Roses, an all-girl wrestling tournament in Dayton, Ohio, Oct. 24-25.
The field of competitors represented more than 10 states, two countries and included world-class athletes. Homer’s team of five was Alaska’s only representative.
Before leaving Homer, Cook offered the girls — Jadzia Martin, 16; McKenzie Cook, 13; Allison Wells, 13; Mina Cavasos, 12; and Saoirse Cook, 6 — some advice.
“There are girl wrestlers and there are wrestlers that are girls. The difference is girl wrestlers are just there for something to do, but for wrestlers that are girls, wrestling is in them, the drive, the spirit, the motivation, the love of the sport. It’s in their hearts. It’s part of them,” said Cook.
It was advice the girls took to heart. Getting over their jitters, each of the Homer girls placed. McKenzie Cook scored a first place; Wells and Saoirse Cook each took a second; Martin and Cavasos each earned a third.
“I didn’t see any girl wrestlers down there. Only wrestlers that happen to be girls,” said Cook. “There was some really good wrestling down there. We also pulled off the Coaches Award. … The girls did an excellent job representing Alaska and Popeye.”
As anticipated, the matches were tough. Martin faced two of the toughest wrestlers in the tourney. McKenzie Cook found herself competing against high school wrestlers. The tournament brought out an aggressive side of Wells that Cook hopes will carry through the rest of the wrestling season.
“(Cavasos) really came out of her shell, too. She and Saoirse (Cook) both beat opponents in free style that they lost to in folk,” said Cook.
The “move of the day” went to Cavasos, who executed a series of moves exactly as she had practiced and scored a pin.
“It was beautiful. That move made the trip for me, to see the girls thinking on the mat and using what we taught them,” said Cook.
The ability of the Homer wrestlers caught the attention of others.
“The organizers were impressed that we brought so many girls and that they acted as a team the whole time and also at their performance as a whole,” said Cook.
Looking back on it, Cook said the tournament offered the Homer wrestlers another level of competition.
“It wasn’t just tough, it was ferocious. Some of the boys they wrestle here in Alaska don’t beat them up like the girls did there,” said Cook. “These were definitely some of the toughest matches they’d ever been in.”
The experience helped build camaraderie and respect among all the participants “and at the end, they were all talking and sharing stories like they were old friends when an hour earlier they were trying to destroy each other,” said Cook. “It was an amazing transformation. Also our girls got to see how well they really could do and how much farther they need to go if they want to progress in this sport.”
Popeye Wrestling begins again in March. For now, Martin will continue wrestling with the Homer High School team and Coach Chris Perk. McKenzie Cook also is working with the high school team; she and Cavasos will wrestle with the junior high team after the first of the year. Wells will wrestle with the junior high team at Chapman School after the first of the year, also.
“Saoirse (Cook) is really bummed that she can’t get on the mat again until March, but she will practice a little at home,” said Cook of his six-year-old daughter. “In March, I hope to see all of them back for Popeye wrestling. “
Popeye Wrestling is available to anyone five years old and older.