Five Shelton girls dedicate themselves to wrestling

Kiyree Michel, Grace Marino, Rachel Camiglio and Lillya Akande are first-time wrestlers at Shelton.

Kiyree Michel, Grace Marino, Rachel Camiglio and Lillya Akande are first-time wrestlers at Shelton.

Bill Bloxsom / Hearst Connecticut Media

SHELTON — Wrestling coach Bill Maloney greeted 17 candidates for the Shelton team. Fourteen were new to the program. Four of them were girls.

“It is kind of a rarity. We’ve had a girl or two come out but not in these numbers,” Maloney said. “Anala Smith is a senior who was on our team in 2020. Lillya Akande, Rachel Camiglio, Grace Marino, all sophomores, and Kiyree Michel, a senior, are new to the team,” he said. “They are here every day. They never miss a practice. They’ve bonded. They go mat to mat during tournaments rooting teammates on.”

Smith had missed time with a concussion. Now she is out until next week due to health and safety protocol with COVID.

“It’s been rough,” Smith said. “I miss the community aspect. But what I really miss is being tired after workouts and just wanting to go to sleep. Not wrestling last season was hard for me. I wanted to learn more and compete. You only get better by being on the mat.”

The commonality for the newcomers was simple. Each was looking to be challenged during the winter season. Camiglio and Akande wanted another sport to play. Marino, a softball player, wanted to stay active before the spring season. Michel, who played multiple youth sports, chose to return to athletics.

Six weeks of workouts and matches have stoked the fire within each of the novice grapplers.

“Except for Anala, there weren’t girls on the wrestling team and that interested me. I thought this was an opportunity to do something special,” said Camiglio, a two-year field hockey player who also plays with the Aspetuck Valley Rugby Club. “Each day you get to improve and see other wrestlers get better. We are all supportive of one another. It’s all about learning.”

Michel said: “I played a lot of sports growing up. I was talking to Grace and she brought up wrestling. I said: ‘Let’s do it.’ I play rugby with the Aspetuck Club. It’s like football only with no padding. I see wrestling will help there because you need balance and leverage to do well.”

Marino practiced with a pulled quad muscle that had her limping around before going full-out during drills.

“I know it is always talked about, but this team is like a really big family,” Marino said. “The competition is unbelievable. Every match you find something out about yourself you never knew before.”

Akande, a 138-pounder, thought of joining a year earlier.

“Anala mentioned wrestling to me, but there wasn’t a season last year. I thought about it and started telling Grace and Kiyree what I was thinking. We all said yes. My folks were surprised, but said go for it. My grandfather thought it was cool.”

Parents were on board with one slight exception.

Marino said: “I had broken my arm twice playing softball. When I told my mom, she said to go ahead and do it. My dad told me I better not break an arm. When I was talking to him after practice the other day, he said he could see me smiling inside and out. He’s all for me wrestling now.”

Michel is invigorated by little improvements.

“In my last match at 160 I looked to hit a switch (reverse from bottom to top),” she said. Did she succeed? “No, but I did it without thinking. That is what good wrestlers do. When I came off the mat all my teammates had noticed and brought it up. I was so happy.”

Camiglio said: “Except for Matt Weiner and Graham Ziperstein with the boys, and Anala with the girls, everyone is new to the team. It is amazing how much we have improved. We are all here for as long as it takes.”

Marino felt the butterflies before her first 182-pound match.

“It was nerve wracking,” she said. “Here I am standing at the edge of the mat. I can’t believe I’m going to go do something I never did before. There is an excitement that gets inside you when you are walking to the scorer’s table to check in. You have got to believe that one day, with enough practice and enough work, you are going to win.”

True inspiration

There is a think piece from Dan Gable, renowned collegiate wrestler and coach, pinned to the bulletin board in the wrestling room — ‘Once you’ve wrestled, everything else in life is easy.’

Coach Maloney believes the girls have their own role model.

“Anala Smith placed sixth in the 126-pound weight class at the CIAC’s All-Girls Wrestling State Open Invitational as a sophomore,” he said. “She is now wrestling 152, 160 and is helping all the girls. She is walking proof.”

Height and muscle are key for boys according to Smith. Girls need to use their hips and flexibility to counter that advantage.

“Now I can teach them. With boys it’s all about strength. I can show them how to use their flexibility to their advantage when wrestling. I find that rewarding,” Smith said. “It was way different, wrestling only boys in practice, when I joined the team.”

Smith hopes she has started something long lasting.

“It’s empowering,” she said. “The fluidity of the team, the girls wanting to be on the team. To see them work to get better. I’m proud of them. I’m proud of myself if I had anything to do with making a difference.”

Dominos are falling

“It brings me a lot of joy to have four girls on the team. We are teammates who are dedicated to learning and to have fun wrestling,” Smith said. “For me to have jump-started this brings me true joy. I can see myself continuing to wrestle in college. It’s great to know we can work together. My plan is not to be soft on them. I want to show them it won’t be easy, but then show them what will work.”

Perhaps Smith was thinking of another Gable think piece: ‘Some have wrestled without great skill — none have wrestled without pride.’

This from a wrestler who won 117 straight collegiate victories then suffered his only loss in the final match of his collegiate career. Gable went on to Olympic glory and coached the University of Iowa to 15 national titles in 21 seasons.

“The drive to do better never stops. I’m always looking to learn. When you lose, you work to get better. There is always one more match to be won.”

william.bloxsom@hearstmediact.com Twitter: @blox354