Most wrestlers don’t spend time at practice working on gymnastic routines, but that’s just what the Rainier girls wrestling team found itself doing last Friday at the Yelm Gymnastics Center.
That’s because the district recently hired Kelli Garner, a fifth-grade teacher at Rainier Elementary and owner of the gym, to lead a team that now stands at nine girls strong.
That number is pretty remarkable for a program that hasn’t seen much success in recent years due to its size and focus.
It’s also part of the reason why she came into the coaching position.
“If it allows the girls to do more and have more opportunity to participate, I’m down,” Garner recalled thinking.
Her daughter, junior Alia Garner, has competed with the wrestling program for about a year. When she heard that Head Coach Chris Holterman was looking for someone to step up, she considered it.
Garner has been involved in gymnastics with her daughter for about seven years. Both sports are physically grueling and provide their own set of challenges.
The new Mountaineers coach said while she may not know much about the technical aspects of wrestling, she’ll be able to leverage her experience as a gymnastics coach to help lead the girls to bigger and better things.
“Being able to send the girls to their own events is much more beneficial than just tagging along with the boys,” Holterman wrote in an email to the Nisqually Valley News. “Their match counts will more than double what they had last year … It was a very good move by the district to step forward and say, ‘yes we want to build something here that is positive and will increase participation for Rainier students.’”
The team still plans on taking guidance from Holterman.
“If you’re a good coach, it’s easy to transfer those skills to another sport,” Garner said. “I love working with them. They’re a great group of girls.”
Many of the lady Mountaineers say they’re excited to have Garner leading them and are looking forward to the independence they’ll have as a team, both while on the road and at practice.
“We used to have no support. We used to be in the shadows,” said sophomore wrestler Anna Champlin. “It’s kind of awesome having practice with just the girls so we can focus on us.”
“Yeah,” added junior Kylie Van Elsacker. “It’s not about the boys anymore. It’s about the girls.”
Van Elsacker said last season her team would mostly tail along to whatever meet the boys were heading to and would attend one or two girl tournaments a season. So far this season, they’ve been able to go to at least one every week.
Many of the girl wrestling teams in Rainier’s 2B Central League are small, Garner said, so they often compete against larger and more well-established programs.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s a good challenge,” Champlin said. “We don’t have a lot of resources, but we work with what we got.”
Many of the girls agree though that there’s been plenty of support within the community to help them grow the program and succeed.
This year’s team is a mixed bag as far as age and experience. The team has two freshmen, three sophomores, two juniors and two seniors.
Many of them have dabbled in gymnastics, so the conditioning routine at the Gymnastics Center doesn’t feel too off for many of the athletes.
The Mountaineers aren’t returning any state placers on the roster. But hopefully, with a little grit and determination, they’ll be able to change that.
Garner said her goals this year for the team are to build a cohesiveness and lay a comprehensive foundation for success.
“I just want to be out there and have fun with them,” she said. “It’s about them. It’s all about them. They’re the ones doing the super hard work.”