Junior World bronze medalist Maya Nelson is proof that wrestling is beautiful
Growing up, Maya Nelson was always the girl competing in a boy’s sport.
Throughout her adolescent career, all of Nelson’s opponents were boys. She was used to it, and it made her tough. However, she struggled receiving the recognition she deserved as a wrestler. To most, she was just seen as a girl.
A product of Denver, Colo., Nelson lived about an hour away from the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, but she admits that she didn’t take advantage of the opportunity because, at the time, she didn’t take women’s wrestling seriously.
“I fell into a mindset that I’m better than them because I’ve been wrestling boys,” Nelson said. “I was brainwashed like many other people that women in sports aren’t serious, and that’s a sad thing, especially coming from the perspective of a female athlete. All those years, I wanted that respect as being someone’s opponent, and I didn’t realize that I lacked that respect for other women wrestlers.”
It wasn’t until she hit the USA Wrestling circuit as a Cadet that she started facing female opponents, tough female opponents. It became an essential turning point in her wrestling career as well as an important life lesson.
“I had opponents like Becka Leathers, Kayla Miracle, Teshya Alo, Alexis Porter and all those girls. I just always had to wrestle the toughest people, and I think it made me grow,” Nelson said. “I realized that these girls are just like me, and when I realized that, it was like my love for the sport was reborn. Seeing other women wrestling on the mat was amazing for me. Being a part of it and watching it grow, just makes me want to sit back and take it all in. Look at how strong these women are. Look at how beautiful these women are. Look at how hard each one of us is working to be seen as a competitive wrestler.”
Nelson’s wrestling career started at the young age of 4, thanks to her father, Joshua, who coached little league. But thanks to her mother, Tomasita, it hasn’t ended.
“My dad definitely gets the credit for getting me involved in the sport, but my mom was the reason I stayed in the sport,” Nelson said. “The times that I was struggling were because of my body image and how that compared to what was deemed beautiful. My mom did a really good job of letting me know that strength is beautiful, poise is beautiful and drive is beautiful.”
One of Nelson’s fondest memories as a young wrestler came when she put on her first singlet.
“My first memory of my first day of school I was standing at the top of the stairs and I said, ‘Look Mommy, how do I look?’ and she said, ‘Beautiful as usual.’ Then the first time I put on a singlet, I was standing at the top of the stairs and asked the same thing, ‘Mommy, how do I look?’ and she said ‘Beautiful as usual.’ I think just knowing that I was beautiful because of what I did, helped me stay in it,” Nelson said.
Thanks to the support of her parents and Coach Randy Gallegos, Nelson was shielded from the backlash of being a girl who wrestles boys for most of her career. Things started to change in high school.
Joshua and Tomasita sat their freshman daughter down and gave her an important piece of advice: Don’t let anyone make you feel small.
“I remember that conversation vividly but didn’t really understand what they were talking about at the time,” she said.
Later that year, it started to make sense.
“I was warming up at a dual tournament, and this dad looked at his son and said, ‘if you don’t pin her, then you’re walking home,’” Nelson said. “I was so angry because I was thinking there is no way he’s going to pin me. The match went into overtime, and it looked like he was about to take me down and I did a standing switch and finished it to win the match. His dad was so mad at him and screaming at him. I just remember thinking how ridiculous it was because we’re both wrestlers. I felt like an outcast, like I wasn’t a wrestler to them, I was just a woman.”
Unfortunately, there were more incidents like that one, but Nelson kept her head up continued to improve.
Her junior year in high school, she made it to the Colorado state tournament, becoming the first female in history to qualify for the tournament. She notes that as a defining moment for her.
“When I finally made it to the state tournament, coaches that used to scoff at my presence on the mat were starting to acknowledge me,” she said. “That was the big moment for me in their eyes, I think. From then, it started to become a lot more fun.”
As a senior, Nelson returned to state, looking to become the first female to place at the event. She fell just one match short.
For the 2015-16 season, she went on to University of the Cumberlands in Kentucky to wrestle, which she did as a freshman.
Last summer, the three-time Fargo champion made her first Junior World Team and traveled to Macon, France, to represent the United States at the UWW Junior World Championships.
Nelson stepped up to the challenge of competing at her first World Championships, finishing third in the world at 63 kg/138.75 lbs.
“We’re strong in America, but around the world, female wrestlers are strong!” she said. “It was such a cool experience for me. Seeing other women from so many countries just scrap was definitely the best part. We’re all fighting for greatness, and it’s so much fun to be a part of it.”
This year, she made her way back to Colorado and became a resident athlete at the United States Olympic Training Center.
At only 19 years old, she has seen major improvements and recently finished third at 63 kg at the Senior Women’s World Team Trials, securing her a spot on the 2017-18 National Team.
Nelson is still eligible for Junior-level competition and will head to Irving, Texas, this weekend for the UWW Women’s Nationals in hopes of making her second-consecutive Junior World Team.
More important to Nelson than international medals and glory is to set an example for other young girls not only in the sport of wrestling but also in life.
“My biggest drive is to inspire other women to be empowered,” Nelson said. “We’re in a society where the definition of beauty is always changing. Strong is beautiful. Intelligence is beautiful. You are a beautiful person. Something as simple as that can make a difference. Just because I wrestle, it doesn’t define who I am. I am still beautiful.”