Defeating opponents and defying stereotypes
Kennett High School wrestler Mary Nichols just returned home after competing in a freestyle tournament in Fargo, North Dakota.
By Steven Hoffman
When Mary Nichols was six years old, she saw a middle school wrestling match and knew that she wanted to give the sport a try herself.
“It seemed like a cool sport to me,” Mary explained in an interview last week. When she asked her parents if she could give wrestling a try, they wanted to be supportive of their daughter, even if wrestling wouldn't have been their first choice of a sport for her.
“I used to wrestle and I thought it would be good for her,” her father, Jason, explained. “It’s what she wanted to do, so why not let her do it?”
“If I say ‘no’ to her, I would be depriving her of something,” added Mary's mother, Alicia. “I told her, 'If this is something you’re going to do, you can try it, but you’re going to do it for the whole season.'”
It didn't take long for any worries about Mary quitting wrestling to vanish. From the first time that she competed on the mat, Mary loved it.
“No one thought I was that serious about it,” she explained. “But I had to push through.”
Mary, who will turn 16 in August, has been competing in the male-dominated sport for a decade now, usually battling against male opponents because there are so few girls on wrestling teams in this area. She has always been much more focused on defeating her opponents than defying specific stereotypes, but if anyone wants to hold her up as an example of how girls can compete with boys, even in wrestling, then so be it.
Mary compiled a 20-15 record for the Kennett High School wrestling team during her sophomore season, making her one of the top female grapplers in the entire state.
Her parents aren't surprised by the success.
“I always knew that she could do it,” Alicia explained. “She’s a go-getter. People tried to tell her that she couldn’t, but she was going to go get it. She’s strong and has a good heart.”
“She was always determined,” her father said. “When she puts her heart into something, she works hard at it to get to that point.”
At this point, there's really no off-season for Mary as she's focused on improving as a wrestler year-round. She just returned home on July 23 after competing in the Cadet and Junior National Championships in Fargo, North Dakota. She qualified for the tournament by placing second in a state competition in Harrisburg in April and finishing first at a tournament in Shippensburg in June. Mary earned the invitation to the prestigious tournament even though she is much more experienced in folkstyle wrestling than the freestyle grappling that was featured at Fargo.
“It was a cool experience,” Mary said. “I definitely know what I have to do now.”
During the wrestling season at Kennett, Mary almost always faces off against boys, but in Fargo, she had the opportunity to compete against girls who are, like her, very serious about the sport. She wrestled at 115 pounds in the Cadet competitions and 117 pounds for the junior competitions. After winning the first match, Mary dropped a hard-fought decision to an opponent who went on to the finals of the tournament. In all, Mary wrestled five times during the trip.
“These girls all work just as hard as I do,” Mary explained. “They were on top of every mistake that I made. I am just learning to wrestle freestyle. It’s a lot more fast-paced. I had to work a lot harder because it was a different style.”
What was also a little different about the Fargo trip is the fact that her family and friends weren't in attendance cheering her on. Jason and Alicia are her biggest fans, and almost never miss a match with the high school team. Alicia said that it was hard having her daughter compete so far from home.
“It was the longest ten days ever,” she said with a laugh.
With her athleticism and willingness to work hard, Mary would likely succeed at other sports, but she has always had a natural enthusiasm and ability for the sport.
“I would be happy to get up at six o’clock in the morning to be in a match,” Mary explained.
She said that one of her strong points as a wrestler is that, from a very early age, she understood what her coaches were trying to teach her about different wrestling moves and positions. Combine that understanding with an uncommon work ethic and you have a very skilled wrestler.
“I always wanted to get myself up to the level of the harder competition,” she said. “I ran harder than anyone else. I worked harder. Even if I’m losing, every second of the match counts so I don’t give up until the final buzzer.”
The single biggest challenge that Nichols has faced came in eighth grade when she was competing in the finals of the Chichester tournament. The season had been a fairly successful one up to that point for Mary, and she felt confident against the opponent she was facing. But just 40 seconds into the match her opponent landed hard on her foot, breaking a bone. She was out for the rest of the season and to this day she still feels the effects of the injury. It is a constant reminder that wrestling can be a dangerous sport.
Mary said that in the weeks after the injury she continued to attend all the practices and wrestling meets with the team, doing whatever she could to help out and learn.
“When my foot was healing, I was still always there. I practiced and practiced,” she explained.
She said that the message that she took away from the experience of rehabbing the injury was to never doubt herself.
When she entered high school, the competition level became much stronger. As a ninth-grader, she wrestled at 106 pounds and had to work hard in order to compete against her opponents. Initially, most of her wrestling practice took place during wrestling season, but she has continually expanded those efforts—to the point where she's training year-round.
“I had to work harder because of the strength that my opponents had, and the mental focus that they had,” she explained.
In ninth grade, she picked up nine victories against ten losses. Mary wasn't content with that. She was determined, as she entered her sophomore season, to improve her performance with each match and achieve a winning record during the course of the season.
“I wanted to have a great season,” she explained. “I knew what it was like to have a losing season.”
All she did that sophomore year was earn 20 victories, the most by any female grappler in Pennsylvania who competes primarily against male opponents on a varsity wrestling squad.
While female wrestling is a growing sport, including at the collegiate level, there are still few female competitors in this area. Mary is hoping that more female wrestlers will compete in the future as she and other top athletes prove that girls can compete in the sport.
As a high school wrestler, Mary has had the occasional opportunity to work with and teach younger wrestlers in the youth program. She said that she loves working with youngsters. Mary has worked with one girl who is starting to learn the basics of wrestling, and she told the girl’s parents that she is willing to help the youngster in any way possible. She would like to see another female grappler emerge in Kennett Square.
“I’ve been the only girl since I started,” she said, “and I want somebody to take over what I have done in Kennett.”
With 29 wins as a high school wrestler, Mary is preparing for the upcoming wrestling season.
“I want to wrestle at 113 and I want to have 20 or more wins this season,” she said. “I’m looking forward to a good season. I want to keep pushing myself to work hard.”
She also wants to find more freestyle events which will help prepare her for collegiate wrestling.
With so much success, Mary has earned a level of popularity in the area as the girl grappler. This distinction makes her family very proud.
“That’s Mary. That’s our girl wrestler,” Alicia said. “I’ve always known that she would do something with herself. As a parent, I’m very proud—I'm proud of her as a wrestler and I'm proud of the young lady that she’s becoming.”