When Anna Cullens and Kaitlyn Hain began wrestling two years ago, they weren’t thinking of blazing a trail for other young women to follow. Aggressive athletes since early childhood, they just wanted to participate in a sport they had watched their brothers compete in.
"I went to his tournaments and duals and I was thinking, ‘I wanna wrestle,’" Cullens said just before practice in the wrestling room of Wellington High School.
At the first West Regional Kansas 4A Girls Wrestling Tournament, held the prior weekend in McPherson, Cullens took first place at 109 pounds, becoming the first women’s wrestling regional champion in WHS history.
"I actually feel really accomplished and I feel absolutely amazing about it," Cullens, a freshman, said.
KSHSAA (Kansas State High School Activities Association) officially recognized girls wrestling as a sport in the 2019-2020 school year. Cullens and Hain, who took fifth place at regionals at 130 pounds, are both going to the first girls state wrestling tournament, scheduled for Thursday at Tony’s Pizza Events Center in Salina.
"I just wanted to be one of the first girls to go to state and make history for Wellington," Hain, a sophomore, said.
The two started wrestling together at Wellington Middle School when Hain was in eighth grade and Cullens was in the seventh. Cullens wrestled last year. Hain came back after not wrestling her freshman year.
"When I wrestled in my eighth grade year, girls’ wrestling wasn’t very popular," Hain said. "I was made fun of at school and that’s what made me wanna do it more, everybody telling me, ‘You’re not gonna make it.’"
Now that Hain has advanced to state, Hain feels like those people who ridiculed her are "just very quiet and shocked."
Girls’ wrestling has picked up exponentially in the past few years. Head WMS and assistant WHS wrestling coach Jeff DeJarnett said there were about 40 girls who went to the state tournament with the boys three years ago. The next year, the number was in the 90s. Last year, it was nearly 200. This year, since KSHSAA approved girls’ wrestling, there are close to 1,000 girls going to state.
When Cullens and Hain started, they had to wrestle boys, and both made it to the podium by pinning boys.
"Wrestling with the boys kind of toughens you up because they’re a little stronger, naturally, so when you go against girls, you’re a little ahead of them," Hain said.
Cullens said, "Once you get to the girls, you gotta realize they’re not guys. Most of them aren’t as aggressive as the guys are, but they’re more flexible than the guys."
Both girls are all-around athletes. In addition to wrestling, Hain plays softball. Cullens goes out for track, and they both went out for cross country this school year.
"Being a multi-sport athlete, it gives you different skills that a single sport might not give you so you combine all your skills you have from different sports and year round, you’re in shape and your endurance is the same," Hain said.
For Cullens, being a sprinter and hurdler in track, going to long distance running in cross country was difficult, she said.
"It made me wanna quit every day, but I still showed up at practice," she said. "It’s right before wrestling season so if I have to lose weight or cut weight, it makes me feel like, ‘Hey, I did this sport. I’m not just gonna quit at the one mile mark.’"
DeJarnett said both girls "are very, very physical. That’s why I kind of pushed them a little bit and recruited them because that’s what this sport is, being physical and being tough and they definitely have that. These two girls have a lot of heart. There’s no quit in em’"
Hain has a 26-4 record this season. Cullens has a 23-1 record, losing her one match to a girl from Independence.
"Hopefully, we see that girl in the finals," DeJarnett said. "Hopefully we make it that far and she makes it that far and she can get that only loss back."
Both girls chalk up losses to learning experiences. Cullens said the girl she wrestled in Independence was taller than her and it was hard to figure out what moves she was going to make.
But along with the pain of losing, there’s the joy of winning.
"When you pin someone, that is the best feeling," Hain said.
"And you get your hand in the air," Cullens responded.
The two girls push each other hard in the practice room and the boys on the wrestling team are "super supportive," Hain said. "They might give us a little crap here and there, but they cheer us on."
As committed wrestlers, they understand each other, the girls and boys.
"Like my coaches say, it takes a different breed to wrestle," Hain said.
Cullens said, "It’s just the pump of adrenaline that goes through your veins while you’re getting ready to go on that mat."
WHS wrestling coach Mitch McComb said Cullens and Hain are leaders.
"I hope we can get more girls out next year," he said.