Constance Nwaigwe was still a toddler in March 2006 when Magruder freshman Helen Maroulis made an impact for the County wrestling for coach Max Sartoph.
Maroulis became the first girl to place at the Maryland wrestling championships, finishing sixth at 112 pounds in the 4A/3A states. As Magruder junior, Maroulis became the first female to reach the finals of both the Montgomery County and Class 4A-3A East Region tournaments and repeated her sixth-place finish at states.
Nowadays, Nwaigwe knows Maroulis as the first-ever American female to win a gold medal at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in August 2016, having earned a world championship title in 2015 after winning silver and bronze medals in 2012 and 2013.
“The first time I saw Helen wrestle, I was very much impressed,” said Nwaigwe, a junior second-year wrestler at Wheaton. “My thoughts were that not only is she a female who wrestled boys at one time, but that she went and won the Olympics. I was thinking, ‘Maybe that could possibly be me one day.’”
After spending her rookie freshman season wrestling males and splitting time on junior varsity and varsity, Nwaigwe was among six county grapplers who earned titles, with two more being runners-up and a ninth finishing third in the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association’s inaugural girls’ invitational folkstyle wrestling tournament at Northeast High School on Feb. 3.
Nwaigwe registered pins in 25, 65, and 77 seconds to go with a 10-3 major decision, winning her 102-pound class of an event which determined champions out of a round-robin pool.
“Our practices are not easy, especially since I’m the only 106 and I wrestle with the 113- and 120-pounders,” said Nwaigwe, whose coach is Kolawole Marville. “Being that I’m used to wrestling guys above my weight class, this tournament was much easier as far as me being able to move the girls around.”
Similarly dominant were Richard Montgomery senior Jasmine De La Vega (107), Gaithersburg’s Lilly Schelling (115), Northwest sophomore Maggie Palmore (122), Blake junior Isabella Pineda (141) and Quince Orchard sophomore Sarah Mesri (160). Finishing second were Northwest’s Sarai Molina (107) and Whitman’s Stephanie Solloso (130), and Richard Montgomery freshman Da-Young Kim (130), third.
“I’ve only been wrestling for three months starting this year at 132 pounds, and it was really empowering to see so many female athletes competing,” said Kim. “Within the county, you kind of feel like you’re at an inherent disadvantage because you see guys’ big muscles, their experience and their confidence. It was nice going to an event where I felt an even playing field and as much a chance of winning as anyone else.”
In 2007, Arundel senior Nicole Woody (103) made more history by becoming Maryland’s first girl to win a county and regional title and to finish as a state runner-up.
Pineda knows all about Woody given that her coach, Rasheim Smith, was a state champion for Blake in 2010, but did not place at 103 the same bracket and year Woody finished second.
“I know [Smith] was really proud of me. I told myself that I wanted to take the first shot in every match,” said Pineda, a first-year wrestler. “My favorite move is a fireman’s throw, and I can usually get the half nelson off of it. I ended up pinning all three girls in the first period.”
Palmore and Mesri registered four falls, with Palmore’s all being in the first period. Like Pineda, De La Vega recorded three first-period pins, while Schelling had two each in pins and decisions.
“As soon as I got to school and at practice on Monday, immediately all of the guys were congratulating me and calling me ‘state champ,’” said Mesri, a former recreational soccer and track competitor. “I look up to wrestlers like Helen Maroulis because she’s worked hard to be where she is and doesn’t give up. Now that I’m a champion, I feel obligated to work harder. I aspire to what Helen’s accomplished.”
Woody pinned South River’s Curtis Taylor in five minutes, 42 seconds for the Anne Arundel County title and blanked Centennial’s Jack Western 2-0 in the finals of the Class 4A-3A regionals on a reversal with 1:01 left in the third period.
Woody lost her state title bout 6-2 to River Hill’s Scott Mantua, who had finished third behind her at regions after losing to Western in the regional semifinals.
Woody won her state semifinal 5-4 in overtime against Tuscarora’s C.J. Savage, having already become the first girl to qualify for the 4A-3A meet as a sophomore, and the first to pin a boy at a state meet as a junior.
Urbana freshman Anya Knappenberger routinely pins 106-pound male opponents like she did during Thursday’s 84-0 shutout of Baltimore City’s Mervo, helping the Hawks to win the Class 4A West Regional Duals crown.
“I’ve trained with Nicole Woody and talked with her a lot. She really helped me to become better, and seeing that she was a finalist at states, I feel as if I have a chance to do well against guys too,” said Knappenberger, who pinned three girls and blanked a fourth 13-0 for the 108-pound title at Northeast.
“It’s empowering to know that you have support from those other girls. But I feel like my team is very special and really supports me. Wrestling with Urbana, there’s not much of a difference, other than it’s girls versus guys.”
Palimore concurs, having met Maroulis at a clinic in Baltimore a month ago. Palimore has won 19 junior varsity bouts and six on varsity, often practicing with Jaguars’ senior Yonas Harris, a county and regional champion who is favored to win states at 106.
“Helen taught us some new moves and told us about her journey. It was awesome. I know I can only get better from here. When I practice with [Harris and teammates,] they really challenge me and push me and won’t let me take breaks. They’re like, ‘If you wanna get better, just keep on going.’ I feel the pressure of wanting to excel, but I want to prove to them that I’m getting better with their help,” said Palimore, coached by Joe Vukovich.
“I know that I have two years left of high school after only starting as a freshman, so I know I can do that. It really helps when you have people pushing you like that, and when you something like this tournament to look forward to. The sport is increasing, and the fact that us girls have the power and the guts to get out there on the mat is really empowering. It can inspire other girls to jump on the mat and try something you haven’t done before.”
Michael Duffy certainly hopes so.
“I think there were initially 84 girls registered, and that 77 participated,” said Duffy, the MPSSAA’s state tournament coordinator. “In the long term, as the sport grows a little more in the state as far as females wrestling, we would like there to be some sort of qualifier for it. But were going to continue to examine it and see where we go from here.”