A few weeks ago, a group of high school wrestling coaches were getting their athletes together for a practice to prepare for the New York boys state championship. Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy wrestling head coach Michael Lepetit had two boys going to qualifiers, and then he remembered his senior Lexi Elson.
“I asked her, do you want to come, do you want to try it out?” he recalled.
She wasn’t wrestling in the state championship, but he offered the experience to her anyways.
“Absolutely,” she replied.
“When we got there, it was so evident to me just how comfortable she was,” Lepetit said. “When you go out there, you get smacked in the face with testosterone. All these tough kids, they’re all going to States, they’re the best of the best.”
“She walked in. She laced up. You could tell she belonged there. When the wrestling started, she was hanging with them. She was really taking down their guys, she was not there to play.”
This wasn’t an overnight occurrence. Elson, along with fellow senior Destiny Gibson-Brown and two juniors Madison Knuckles and Enalyse Pacheco, have been wrestling on the team since seventh and eighth grade.
The Riverdale Press wrote an article about the girls experiences three years ago. Now they’re heading towards the end of their high school wrestling years, having racked up numerous accolades along the way.
Between them, they’ve won multiple city championships, NYC mayor’s cups, and had undefeated seasons. Gibson-Brown alone, who usually competes between 107 and 114 pounds, won back-to-back city championships this year and last year, and this year Elson, usually between 100 and 107 pounds, took third in the Eastern States championship, an invitational for the best wrestlers in New York and the surrounding states.
Elson and Gibson-Brown were 6-0 in PSAL matches during the regular season.
Knuckles, with another year left, took second in this year’s mayors cup at 165 pounds. Last year Elson also became the only girl to medal in the mayors cup, winning silver. But it wasn’t without sacrifice.
Elson was in the mayor’s cup semifinals match last year against Firdavs Ahmadzoda of Frank J. Macchiarola Educational Complex when he made an illegal wrestling move on her and she broke her collarbone. Since he was disqualified for the move, she moved on to the finals match, but couldn’t compete because of the injury. She would have to get surgery and undergo a lengthy rehab.
Coach Lepetit wondered intensely, “How was she going to feel when she gets back?”
“She was nervous, she lost a couple of matches at the beginning of the season. She missed tournaments that she definitely could’ve won,” he recalled.
But after the rocky start to her final season at RKA, she went on a roll, winning this year’s mayor’s cup in January, which moved back to having two separate brackets for boys and girls, and then a city championship in February. This year Destiny took second place in the mayor’s cup after coach Lepetit moved her up in weight.
When remarking that he would move her back down to her usual weight, she objected. “I don’t want to run away from that girl,” Gibson-Brown said, even if she was at a weight disadvantage.
When asked about having to compete in a sport mainly populated with boys, Destiny shared her thinking.
“There’s a huge disparity in the girls I wrestle in my weight class and the boys,” she said. “I don’t take pride in wrestling boys, because I know in our weight classes they tend to be younger. It doesn’t personally make me feel better… the guys are usually stronger than me, but their skill usually isn’t as good.”
Gibson-Brown then explained how lucky she is to have another wrestler like Elson on her team who’s similar in weight that she can practice with. When explaining that the girl wrestlers she faces tend to be easier to compete against, she doesn’t fault them individually. Instead she critiques the wrestling structure that tends to boys and usually forgets about the girls.
“There are no programs [for girls], and if there are programs, it’s not for girls, it’s for guys,” she said.
Despite being in a sport that can forget about them from time to time, Elson and Gibson-Brown seem to focus more on following their passion with wrestling. Looking towards college, both Elson and Gibson-Brown have ideas of what might come next, weighing a few options for colleges near and far.
“I’m probably going to go to City College, or Lehman” Elson said.
“I have no idea,” Gibson-Brown added. She’s been accepted to half of her schools, but there are a few she’s hoping to get into. “I’m only really interested in wrestling if I get into a particular school. Columbia has a club team that’s trying to make a varsity program… I would love to wrestle there.”
Because of the slim options, having a passion for wrestling as a girl and looking towards college usually means having to choose either the sport or the academics. This is perhaps another clear sign to them that they’re left to their own devices and that the broader American wrestling structure doesn’t put enough effort to offer opportunities to athletes like them.
But they’ll find a way. As Elson put it, “wrestling is always going to be with me,” even if it doesn’t get center stage.