photo courtesy of Richard Immel
The 2019 United States women’s freestyle wrestling team features a diverse, fascinating combination of personalities and lifestyles.
The leader of the group is a living legend, Adeline Gray. If she never wrestles another match, Gray’s position on the Mount Rushmore of American women’s wrestling has already been sealed with her four world championships. Adeline is the most polished from a media standpoint and has long been the face of women’s wrestling in America, alongside Helen Maroulis. Two of the team’s rising stars are Sarah Hildebrandt and Tamyra Mensah-Stock, both world medalists in 2018. The pair each wow you with their sincerity and playful nature off the mat, while at the same time, dominating inside the circle. Forrest Molinari has recently won the hearts of wrestling fans, even those who are not die-hard fans of the women’s team, with her intensity and toughness. Jenna Burkert seems to flip a switch to a physical, intimidating presence after she removes her glasses and steps on to the mat. The 62 kg representative Kayla Miracle is the child prodigy with a million-dollar smile who has finally “put it all together” and should threaten for a gold medal in her first Senior World Championship event. Victoria Francis has style predicated on her hard-nosed toughness on the mat. That also translates to her personal life and a quest for promotion of her teammates and women’s wrestling, as a whole. Not only does Jacarra Winchester have a great sense of humor and provides witty soundbites, but she also is a late bloomer that looks like she is on the way to fulfilling her sky-high potential. After Gray, the most decorated member of the team is Alli Ragan. Alli has the footwork and athleticism that leads you to believe that she could be a star setter on the volleyball court or a shortstop on the softball diamond had she not taken up wrestling.
That leads us to the final member of the squad, Whitney Conder.
Just who is Whitney? When asked what role or personality she personifies on the team, Whitney has a hard time answering. Conder is quiet and self-effacing when presented with questions relating to herself or her wrestling. Typically she’ll give short, wrestling-type cliches when talking about her performance on the mat. However, if you mention her dogs or introspective questions about her motivations and place in the sport, Whitney will get deep into conversation and open up perhaps more than any of her nine teammates. The only way that Whitney can answer my question about her role on the world team is to say that she’s the oldest. “I’m from the older group that’s on their way out. For me, my personality is a whole lot different because I’m five or six years older than most of them.”
Whitney’s age is a crucial part of telling her story. In 2019, it’s a great time to be a women’s wrestler. Just over two months ago, the NCAA recommended that all of its three divisions recognize women’s wrestling as an emerging sport. During the 2018-19 school year, ten new collegiate wrestling programs took the mat for the first time. Additionally, this fall, 14 more colleges will enter their first year of competition. 57 colleges will field women’s wrestling teams in 2019-20, with another seven that have pledged to start teams the following year. Down a level in high school, seven states held their first sanctioned state tournaments in 2018-19, with five more set to begin this school year. There have never been this many opportunities for girls and young women to participate in our sport and it’s safe to say that a year from now, those numbers will be multiplied.
Unfortunately, wrestling has not always been deemed an appropriate avenue for young female athletes to participate. As a child growing up in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Conder felt plenty of backlash and was in numerous uncomfortable situations because of her desire to participate in wrestling. Her story starts the same as many other wrestlers, as she wanted to start herself after watching her older brothers and being on the receiving end of their moves at home.
Conder recounts a story from her youth wrestling days in Puyallup, Washington where her mother, Sharon, overheard a pep talk between a father of her upcoming opponent who said he would give his son five dollars to beat her, ten to pin her, fifteen if she ended up crying, and twenty if he pinned her and she cried. After Conder pinned the young boy and he cried, Sharon turned around and asked the man if he’d give her the twenty dollars. Of course, once the man realized that Sharon was the young girl’s mother and overheard the conversation, he apologized.
Though Sharon has always been a loving, supportive mother, she was apprehensive about letting her daughter, the youngest of five children, wrestle. When Sharon told Whitney she was done wrestling at the start of middle school, Whitney defiantly said, “no, I’m not,” and passed along her permission slip to her father, Monte, who quickly signed the paper. A middle school coach heard Sharon’s concerns and reassured her that he’s “never had a girl last past two weeks of training.” Sharon proved to be correct when she replied, “oh, you don’t know my daughter. If you allow her to wrestle, she’ll stay.” Whitney ended becoming his first two-time conference champion at the middle school level.
Once it was time for high school, it was Monte, again, who didn’t let a second pass before giving his signature and allowing his daughter to wrestle. High school wasn’t without its awkward moments either. While attempting to qualify for the state tournament, Whitney was the only girl participating in her regional championship. She was supposed to have her own private weigh-in, but as it turned out, Whitney had every coach and referee in the tournament standing over the scale confirming that she made weight. Along the way, she would frequently hear hecklers who were advising her to “go back to the kitchen and make a sandwich.” Despite those obstacles, Conder was a two-time state placewinner at 103 lbs for Puyallup High School. Whitney’s high school career concluded just before a girls state tournament was established, so her finishes were against high school boys. Whitney was sixth in 2006, which was the highest placement ever for a girl at the Washington state tournament. She also became the first girl to win a regional championship in state history.
Just a year after her high school graduation, Conder experienced her most significant win to date, a gold medal at the 2007 Junior World Championships. That remains the only world medal for Conder, who has participated in three Senior World Championship events in the years following. Whitney has plugged along, never losing sight of another world medal, an honor that has eluded her grasp. After disappointing performances, Whitney has had to remind herself that “you’re not always going to get what you expect that day, but each day is a new day.”
In 2012, after spending time at Northern Michigan and the Olympic Training Center, Whitney joined the Army and became a member of the World Class Athlete Program (WCAP). The Army WCAP team has gotten stronger by the year and in 2018 and 2019, two of its women (Conder and Burkert) have been members of the Senior World Team. Additionally, four of their team members are on the men’s Greco-Roman world team in 2019. Conder describes her training situation with the Army WCAP as “a family that’s always pushing each other to have the drive to be the best. The coaches really believe that we can win these world medals.”
Two months ago, as Whitney and the other wrestlers who had qualified to compete for a place on the world team were participating in the open media session prior to Final X Rutgers, a member of the media asked what inspired these great athletes. One-by-one some of the other competitors gave the standard answers that you would expect from world-class athletes: love for the sport, desire to push themselves, religious beliefs, all common motivators.
Whitney then took the microphone and described what motivates her and has changed her perspective on life, in general. To the surprise of most in attendance, Conder described a tragic situation involving her cousin’s son, Crew, who took his own life at just 11 years old. Crew’s passing made Whitney, “try to figure out the best way to live my life, to live my life for him (Crew) and to try and make myself a better person.”
This tragedy has also made Whitney reevaluate how she views the sport of wrestling. “It’s such a tremendous sport which has so many great people in it, but there are still a lot of people that get down on themselves because of pressure and it ends up being something that can cut them down. There’s got to be that joy, that love for wrestling, even in the hard times, because wrestling can be a sport that people end up hating because they’ve never had fun doing it. It should be a sport where everyone has fun and everyone has a love for, just like life in general.”
For dealing with Crew’s passing and other harrowing events from her past, Whitney has called wrestling her “saving grace.” Some unfortunate incidents from her childhood left Whitney with “a lot of self-doubt and a feeling that I wasn’t good enough.” Once she started wrestling, at eight years old, Conder says, “I noticed how much I loved it and how good I could become at it. It made me feel happy and it made me see that even though I went through a horrible situation, I was still worthy and could do so much more in life”. That renewed sense of self-confidence allowed Whitney to see that, “It didn’t matter what people said. They said it was not a sport for women and not a place for you and that I would never be good enough, but I was able to see it was a sport where I could be great.”
Even with a refreshed outlook on the sport, the mental aspect is something that can bring down any wrestler, and world-class athletes like Conder are no exception. Whitney credits her coaching staff, primarily SSG Aaron Sieracki, with helping her cope with stressful times during her training. Sieracki can “tell from the way I walk into the room if something’s bothering me.” He’ll often say, “Do you need to take some time? Just take some time to refocus.” On occasion, she has taken him up on the offer, other times she has fought through whatever stressors are affecting her because wrestling “helps get my mind off of things.” In either situation, she appreciates the fact that Sieracki can read her and cares about her and the rest of her teammates as people first.
As her career is winding down, Whitney is looking to the future. Eventually, she would like to start a program working with special needs children, assisting with their nutrition and even incorporating wrestling into their lives. At one point, back in Washington, Conder was volunteering with a friend’s high school wrestling program and came across a wrestler with Down’s Syndrome.
“Working with him was amazing,” she said. “He just needed extra work and extra assistance to understand everything completely. There needs to be more programs for kids with special needs, to show them what they can do with their lives. They can get so down on themselves because they don’t feel like they’re worthy and can’t do things like everyone else.”
Recently Conder has begun working with a program that helps expose kids to two of the other passions in her life, dogs and the outdoors. Almost every free weekend, Whitney can be found with her dogs, Zailey, a four-year-old Lab and Beagle mix, and one-year-old Orion, who is half Dutch-German Shepherd and half Belgian Malinois, rock climbing and/or hiking somewhere in Colorado. Sunday’s typically consist of Conder teaching children at her church.
Just last week Whitney was in action for the first time since her dominant victory over Victoria Anthony at Final X Rutgers. Whitney came away with the gold medal in the 50 kg weight class at the Pan American Games. Her tournament started with a pair of 10-0 tech fall victories, then Whitney handled Cuba’s Yusneylis Guzman Lopez 10-2 in the championship bout. Guzman Lopez entered the event in the top-20 of United World Wrestling’s rankings. This marked the second time in her career that Conder has won the Pan American Games and it’s also the second tournament she’s won in 2019 (Grand Prix of Germany).
From 2014 to early-2018, Whitney competed at 53 kg, but made the drop down to 50 kilos last March and has felt great. “It’s the perfect weight for me. I feel very big for 50 kg and it was a great decision to drop.”
Just over a month from now, Whitney will travel to Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan along with the rest of the women’s world team, in search of her another world medal. Win or lose at the World Championships, Whitney takes solace in the fact that the sport has “been there for me throughout my life and it’s been the greatest blessing that the Lord has ever given me.”