After more than eight decades without a girl on the medal stand, fans at Pepsi Center got to watch Jasslyn Gallegos and Angel Rios shatter the ice. Right along with another glass ceiling.
“It’s come such a long way,” said Gallegos, a senior at Skyview High School who, along with Rios, a junior at Valley High, became the first two girls ever to place at the Colorado state wrestling tournament on Saturday. “When I was younger, even in 2006, we had problems with sexism and all of that. Now it’s just not there, the whole ‘girls shouldn’t wrestle’ thing.”
If there was a theme for the 84th Colorado High School Activities Association state tourney, you could sum it up in two words: Girl power.
Some 13 years after the first female wrestler qualified for state (Golden’s Brooke Sauer broke the ice in 2006), local grappling history took another leap forward along Chopper Circle when Gallegos and Rios were honored for finishing fifth and fourth, respectively, in Class 3A’s 106-pound weight class.
“It’s really cool to have the first girls place at state in my bracket,” said Weld Central freshman Robert Estrada, the third-place finisher at 106 in Class 3A. “Really cool.”
Really tough, too. Estrada, who had to scrap to beat both girls on Saturday — Gallegos, 4-2, in the fourth round of consolations and Rios, 3-2, in the third-place match — in order to clinch his spot on the medal stand.
“(Rios) is really tough,” Estrada said. “She’s one of the best in the nation among girls. Same with Jaslynn.
“She never stops. She’s strong. She’s quick. She’s really good. I’m pretty happy for her to get this far. She deserves it. As does Jaslynn.”
Like Gallegos, who sported a 31-6 record going into the tourney, Rios is a wrestling lifer, having taken up the sport after watching her older brothers beat the stuffing out of each other on the mat for ages.
“So wrestling boys is normal to me,” said Rios, who came into the weekend with a 23-3 mark. “It’s what I’ve done for the past 15 years.
“(Placing at state), it’s kind of what I wanted from 7th grade, when I first watched state. It’s pretty much what I’ve worked for over the past 15 years.”
Michael Ciaglo, Special to the Denver PostSkyview senior Jaslynn Gallegos, left, celebrates after pinning Pagosa Springs sophomore Trevor Torrez to win fifth place in the Class 3A 160-pound weight class in the Colorado State Wrestling Championships the Pepsi Center Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019 in Denver.
Rios and Gallegos have tussled at local and regional tourneys over the years, but fate — and the consolation pairings — stuck them on opposite ends of the 106-pound bracket. Ttheir stories eventually became connected by an unexpected link in the chain: Brendan Johnston, a senior wrestler from The Classical Academy in Colorado Springs. Johnston, who entered the tourney with a 36-4 record, declined to wrestle Gallegos during the first round Thursday, giving her a forfeit victory, and did the same when he drew Rios on Saturday morning in the third round of consolations, citing personal and religious principles in both cases.
The pair of self-inflicted losses knocked him out of the bracket. And meant, chronologically at least, Rios became the first girl in Colorado history to clinch at least a podium finish at the state wrestling tourney.
“You don’t want that to detract from the fact that both of these girls earned their places,” CHSAA assistant commissioner Ernie Derrera said. “They’re both phenomenal wrestlers in their own right.”
“It’s his choice,” Rios said of Johnston, who forfeited out of the state tourney for similar reasons in 2018. “I have no control over it.”
Once Rios got control, she took advantage — besting Pagosa Springs’ Trevor Torrez in the fourth round of consolations, 4-2, to set up a meeting with Estrada.
“She’s worked all her life for this, she’s put in the hours,” said Daniel Rios, Angel’s father. “I know going into this sport that it was going to be tough for her. But we knew what she was going into.”
Four brothers, four sisters. You fight for your place. Little brother, Isaiah, Angel’s practice partner, was here, too, and won the 3A title at 138 pounds late Saturday night.
“I told her wrestling was for boys and she came back to me a week later and said, ‘I want to wrestle.’ ” Daniel Rios recalled. “I said, OK, then I’ll give you a week in the (wrestling) room … in the one week we gave her, she decided that this is her sport. And she’s never left the mat.”
Or backed away from a challenge. CHSAA has put separate, sanctioned girls wrestling up for a vote among members that’s expected in the spring and would, if approved, take effect for the 2020-21 school year. Conversations toward a girls-only division began in 2015, Derrera said, and this year was the first for an official pilot program. More than 300 girls at 114 different schools participated in wrestling this season statewide.
In other words, it really has come a long way.
“When I was younger, referees wouldn’t call pins, wouldn’t give points,” Gallegos recalled. “Even if the other coaches agreed it was a point.”
“They would call locking hands on her,” Jaslynn’s father Orlando interjected. “My daughter doesn’t lock hands. She’s way too smart to lock hands in a match.”
“Just points and stuff,” Jaslynn added.
“Some of the refs, they felt bad for the boys,” Orlando explained. “So it’s really come a long way.”
“Now they kind of realize they can’t feel bad for the guys,” Jaslynn said, “because the girls work just as hard, if not harder. It’s kind of evened out since then.”
If anything, wrestling has come full-circle for Gallegos and her peers. They’re feeling sorry for the boys again — only because Gallegos or Rios have just humbled the heck out of them.
You could see it in the eyes of the passers-by along the concourse at Pepsi Center late Friday night as Rios huddled with her father. At one point, a woman, with a child in tow, made a point to stop, walk over and shake Angel’s hand.
“You,” the woman said, beaming, “are one bad-(expletive) little girl.”
Compared to the rest of the journey, the last leg of the walk to the medal stand at Pepsi Center was short and sweet. Accent on the latter.