Black and blue trails down sophomore Jade Danforth’s arm, a trophy of her hard work and dedication. She’ll slip off her simple sweatshirt and jeans and replace it with her tight wrestling singlet before entering the practice where she may receive another picture-worthy bruise, one she would call sweet.
Wiping the dark eyeliner and gray eye shadow from her eyes, she removes the veil of makeup from her face. While her eyes may trail to the floor while talking to others in her quiet voice, the moment she steps onto the wrestling mat, the shy artist transforms into an aggressive competitor.
“When I go to school, I turn off the wrestling part of me,” Danforth said. “But when I go [to wrestling], I turn off the girly part of me. It’s like a light switch.”
Danforth is the only girl on the wrestling team; she is the exception to the norm in a high school sport dominated by boys. While she admits the team environment may make her uneasy, and she has yet to win a match, she continues to try. She will still pull her straightened hair back into a ponytail, strap on the cap and headgear that will protect her from her opponents, and lace up her high-top shoes for her sixth match on Wednesday.
Support for both sides of Danforth comes from home. Her dad has watched every single competition in the season thus far. Having seen his involvement in combat sports such as wrestling, karate, jiu jitsu and mixed martial arts throughout his life, the constant exposure to this lifestyle sparked Danforth’s interest three years ago. Ultimate Fighting Championship matches would play on the television as she spent time with him, and the more she watched, the more intrigued she became.
“The thought of beating someone up sounded nice,” Danforth said. “That’s why I wanted to do [combat sports].”
Danforth began training in jiu jitsu three years ago. She works an average of four days a week at Kansas City Brazilian Jiu Jitsu during the wrestling offseason, exercising focus and concentration along with her muscles. Her dad encouraged her to learn skills like self-defense and patience that come with jiu jitsu.
“I hope she has an appreciation for everything that she does and that she’s capable of doing,” her father, Marcus Danforth said. “There’s a lot of people that can’t, or won’t, wrestle or do jiu jitsu. They just don’t have the drive to go out and do something like that.”
Danforth’s determination has led her to improve throughout the season. After being pinned within 20 seconds during her first competition match, Danforth now lasts three out of three rounds against her opponents.
Although she’s never had an altercation during a competition or been refused a match, she faces the difficulty of separation from her own team. She feels the attitudes change when wrestlers work with her. She sees the dirty looks that flash across certain faces when they hear she’s their next partner. She knows no one wants to be her spotter in the weight room because she moves slower than the rest of the boys.
One teammate, Billy Ruttan, believes that some of their teammates leave her out based on the fact that she’s a girl without getting to know the sweet girl that he has befriended. More often than not, they don’t bother to acknowledge her presence at all.
“I just think guys think it’s really uncomfortable to wrestle with her because she’s a girl,” Ruttan said. “It was a little weird at first but then I started to get comfortable with it.”
This separation drives her to prove that she is an equal and worthy opponent while the anger causes her to zero in on her technique. When she spends time thinking about how someone has upset her, her wrestling benefits. The frustration allows her to be more aggressive, and in turn, perform with more confidence.
“If [the guys] beat me at practice, sometimes the look on their face will say that they were upset that it was that easy,” Danforth said. “It makes me want to try harder to beat them later on and eventually I end up beating them.”
These higher expectations come from Danforth herself. She wasn’t forced to go through any other rules or regulations during signups or tryouts. Her coaches treat her just as any other wrestler that walks through the gym doors. But this motivation helps because the boys she faces in her weight class are typically stronger than she is.
“She never even thought about quitting,” JV coach Bill Gibson said. “We’ve had some tough practices and she doesn’t say ‘oh coach I can’t do this’, she just goes out and does it.”
While her attitude strengthens her during practice, competitions bring nerves that take over her body.
She hates the feeling of all eyes on her at competitions. Just before she steps on the mat, thoughts flood her mind. She can’t help but think about how she is wearing a body-hugging uniform and her hair is hidden by headgear. She is fixated with self-consciousness while she is supposed to be focused on pinning someone else to the ground.
Even though she dislikes the attention when competing, she’s empowered by the fact that she can be assertive while training but then introverted during the school day.
Since joining the team, people she doesn’t recognize say hello to her in the hall. Danforth wants to be acknowledged for the fact that not many other girls would have the nerve to join an all-male sport and stick with it. She would love if other girls tried out for the team, granted that they were as committed as she.
Controlling the flip of the switch has been the best part for Danforth. She’s able to express both the shy artist and the fierce opponent parts of her personality. At first, the shy side of her was more prominent. At the beginning of the season when she would walk into the gym, her eyes would avert to the ground immediately and she would stare at her shoes. She’s slowly opening up to those around her, talking to managers and a few teammates before practice begins.
Her positive attitude is the main reason she has been having so much fun with wrestling, according to her dad. She has two years left to continue getting better. She believes learning technique now, and then perfecting those skills later on will help her on the path to winning.
Danforth is looking for a wrestling gym to join here in town, and hopes to go to Iowa for a camp this summer. Rugby is next on her list of sports to try, despite her mom’s hesitations about competing in two “guy sports” in one year. Luckily, she’s already found a club in the area. They happen to offer a girl’s team.