After fighting for their place on the mat, Bristol Bay girls are winning wrestling titles

girls wrestling
Kiley Clouse wrestles at the ASAA State Wrestling Tournament in Anchorage on Dec. 16-17, 2022. (Courtesy Dillingham Wolverine Wrestling Camp)

Girls weren’t always able to wrestle in Dillingham.

In the early 2000s, they had to petition the school board to let them join the team. Then, they were wrestling against boys. But girls’ wrestling kept growing in Bristol Bay despite those barriers.

Now, 18-year-old team captain Kiley Clouse has become Dillingham’s first statewide girls wrestling champion. And Aileen Lester of Newhalen has won her third state title. Both competed in Division II at the ASAA State Wrestling Tournament in Anchorage this month.

In her final match, Clouse wrestled the undefeated Jessailah Thammavongsa of South Anchorage and won 4-0 in the third period. The crowd cheered as the referee raised her hand high. For a moment, Clouse didn’t believe it.

“I wanted it for so long, and it finally happened.” she said. “I was just so overwhelmed and proud of myself. I just started straight crying on the mat, and I got off and I was just like, crying and hugging everyone.”

girls wrestling
Kiley Clouse after her final match at the 2022 state tournament. Dec. 17, 2022. (Courtesy Shannon Clouse)

This win was a long time coming. Clouse didn’t have a season her sophomore year during the pandemic, and an injury last year made it tough to compete.

And because there were fewer wrestlers on the girls teams, they didn’t have as many weight classes as the boys. Clouse was wrestling at the 189 weight class until this year — which meant she was 20 pounds lighter than some of her opponents.

This season, she wrestled at 165, and she had a lot more confidence.

“It’s the first time I’m wrestling girls who are actually my weight,” she said.

William Savo, the Dillingham Wolverine’s head coach, was a student athlete when girls first started to petition the school for a chance to compete in the early 2000s.

“It’s pretty ironic. When I was in eighth grade, two of my classmates, Kim McCambly and Sarah Evans, wanted to wrestle, but the school board wouldn’t let them,” he said.

The girls petitioned the school to change its policy. When they did join, Savo said, they were wrestling against boys. And the team wasn’t welcoming.

“Boys ain’t very accepting, you know,” he said. “I was part of it. Nobody really wants to change. But they competed in middle school, in high school. They were the first two that kind of got the ball rolling around Dillingham. And then there’s been girls that’ve wrestled throughout.”

Assistant Coach Jack Savo wrestled for Dillingham in the 1990s and came back in 2002. He said girls wrestling was unprecedented.

“It was new, and it was unheard of to have a highly contact and competitive sport like wrestling be co-ed, especially at a time when the girls had to practice with boys and had to compete against boys,” he said. “But I think the determination of the young ladies that started the drive leads us to where we’re at now.”

girls wrestling
Kiley Clouse with coaches Reed Tennyson, Jack Savo and William Savo. (Courtesy Shannon Clouse)

Dillingham’s team — and Alaska wrestling — has come a long way since then. Alaska’s first sanctioned girls’ state wrestling tournament was in 2014. Jack Savo said they brought in three women wrestlers to work with the girls team this year, including one who wrestled on the first U.S. women’s Olympic freestyle team in 2004.

And interest is increasing. There’s a strong cohort of middle school girls, Willie Savo said, and 21 elementary girls have signed up for wrestling this year.

Women’s wrestling is one of the fastest-growing sports in the country, both at the high school and college levels. According to the National Wrestling Coaches Association, since 1994 the number of women who wrestle in high school has grown from 804 to over 31,600.

Another state champion from Bristol Bay is 18-year-old Aileen Lester of Newhalen, a small community on Iliamna Lake. She also won state titles in 2020 and 2021, and she was named last year’s outstanding state wrestler. Lester has wanted to wrestle since kindergarten, and she finally convinced her parents to let her join in sixth grade. Still, she had some reservations.

“When I said something in class, all the boys were like, ‘Oh, girls can’t wrestle, this and that and the other,’” she said. “I remember playing king of the mat, and I kicked all the boys’ butts that were around my weight. And I was like, ‘Yeah, definitely, this is what I’m doing.’”

girls wrestling
Aileen Lester of Newhalen wrestled her way to a third state title at the 2022 ASAA tournament on Dec. 16 – 17, 2022. (Courtesy Aileen Lester)

Still, she said, she had to prove she belonged there.

“It was pretty tough because at the beginning I didn’t necessarily feel like part of the team,” she said. “But after a while, it was like, I got some wins under my belt. I won some tournaments and matches and I beat some boys and I guess I got respect from them a little.”

Lester said there is a big difference between wrestling with girls and boys — and she has to use different strategies depending on who she’s facing on the mat.

“Girls have a lot more hip control, and a lot more flexibility,” she said. “Guys, usually you get a good half-pin, you’re going to be able to turn them. If you get some sort of pinning combination, you’ll be able to turn them and you can pin them. Like, that’s it for them. But with girls, you can get a good pinning combination in, and they’ll somehow bend their way out of it.”

During her time wrestling, Lester said she convinced several of her classmates to join, as well as her little sister. And she’s enjoyed training with other girls.

Wrestling has been a huge part of life for Dillingham’s Kiley Clouse as well, from making friends to learning new moves to being part of the Dillingham team.

“Wrestling makes me happy. If I’m having a bad day or something, I’m like, ‘Oh, there’s wrestling today.’ Or I’ve had a bad month before school starts and I’m like, ‘Okay, like wrestling starts, one more month. It’s okay.’ And I just love it.”

It was the last high school season for these seniors. Winter practice for middle school begins in January.

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