Kimberly Gardea makes Husky history for Battle Mountain girls wrestling program
Rosy Hernandez’s phone rang. It was her daughter.
“Mom, I’m going to be home a little late today,” the voice proclaimed.
“I’m staying for practice,” came the confident voice on the other end of the line.
“Practice?!” the mother shrieked.
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“Yeah, I’m doing wrestling.”
“Oh, I didn’t think you were for real about it,” the slightly concerned parent said, almost searching for some hesitancy.
“No, I’m serious, I really do want to do it.”
On Dec. 11, just a couple of weeks after that phone call with Kimberly Gardea’s mom, the Battle Mountain High School senior initiated the girls Huskies wrestling program and became its first podium placer, earning a second-place finish at the Soroco Invitational in Oak Creek.
Born in El Paso, Texas, Gardea spent a year in Mexico before moving to the valley at a young age with her parents and two younger brothers, Carlos and Diego. It was while one of those siblings was watching the World Wrestling Entertainment that the then seventh grader Kimberly Gardea got the itch to try the sport. A couple of weeks later, she would savor an authentic taste for the sport through a middle school wrestling unit.
“I thought it was really fun, because we would just take each other down,” Gardea said. “We didn’t really know what we were doing.”
Mysteriously, for the self-admittedly small, unimposing senior — “I get mistaken for a freshman,” she said about walking the halls of Battle Mountain — the combative component to the sport resonated with her.
“I’m not a very aggressive person I would say, but I do think it’s a good way, if you are aggressive, to get your energy out instead of doing other things,” she said regarding the genesis of her interest.
With the inaugural Colorado High School Activities Association girls state wrestling tournament taking place this past spring, the always active Huskies senior, who played basketball, volleyball and soccer before student managing the boys wrestling team her sophomore year, isn’t necessarily motivated by a desire to prove any sort of equivalency with her male counterparts, though. In fact, she readily recognizes the differences between girls and boys when it comes to navigating the mat.
“It’s very different actually wrestling than just watching,” she said about making the jump from holding the clipboard, keenly observing the tactics and maneuvers, and actually suiting up for a dual.
“When you’re seeing it, you’re like, ‘OK, you can easily make this,’ but in the moment, you don’t think of everything you can do. So, I’m actually really glad that we have a girls team and we get to wrestle girls instead of guys, because I think it would be a lot more difficult.’”
It’s a luxury others who came before her didn’t have.
In Angelo Vasquez’s 17 years as head coach, he has had 11 girls wrestle in his program, but they were always forced to compete against the boys.
“It is a passion of a wrestling coach to give any athlete the opportunity to step out on the wrestling mat and compete,” he wrote in an email.
“Now that Colorado has women’s wrestling, I just couldn’t resist the opportunity,” he said about forming an official girls team.
Of his 30 wrestlers, eight are girls. Led by Gardea, they are demonstrating what it means to courageously step out and take advantage of opportunities.
‘It’s my last year’
Gardea’s parents had reservations about the whole sport, even before that seemingly normal after-school phone call.
“They were scared that I would get hurt,” Gardea said of their preconceptions.
She found observing her guy friends perform the different moves, takedowns and techniques fascinating.
“I thought it was really cool to watch,” she said.
When she signed on to assist Vasquez in 10th grade, her penchant for picking things up was clear.
“(She) always showed major interest in the wrestling and was showing that her knowledge of the sport was growing and so was a flame,” Vasquez stated.
With the student-of-the-game mentality budding, the only people she needed to convince were her mom and dad. They were only slightly less hesitant when their daughter informed them of the new opportunity to compete against other girls.
“This year I was like, ‘It’s my last year; come on, I’m never going to be able to do another sport. It’s just for fun, and if I like it I like it, and if I don’t, then I just won’t continue doing it,’” she said.
After hanging up with her mom that November afternoon, she was off to her first practice.
“It was quite intimidating,” she said. She didn’t match up to anyone — in physical stature or competitive experience.
Fearless, Gardea remain poised and focused on her goal.
“I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it and that I could keep up with them.”
Practices typically start with technique work and finish with laps around the school. Gardea decided to emphasize the elements she knew she could excel in.
“So, I would try and do a technique, and of course I’m not as good as them because they’ve been doing it for a really long time,” she said. “But with cardio, I would try and keep up with them so I wouldn’t be seen as weaker.”
Fortunately, Vasquez had considered the necessary climate for both newcomers and veterans when designing his practices, separating athletes and coordinating the order of their drills to align with experience and ability.
“So it wasn’t as intimidating,” Gardea said, “he would put us with people who know as much as we do so we could improve together.”
One thing Gardea quickly realized and has come to love about the team is its collaborative culture.
“If someone needs help, they will help them,” she said, noting how her male teammates will encourage her to practice moves on them so they can provide tips and instruction.
“They’ll say, ‘You can take me down so I know what you’re doing — I can feel it — and I’ll tell you what you can switch up,’” she said.
“It’s like a really close family; everyone gets along so well. Even though I don’t talk to all of the guys outside of the wrestling room, when we are in the wrestling room, it feels like we’ve been friends for a really long time.”
It’s a family Gardea hopes will continue to grow.
“I’ve had friends that I’ve tried to encourage to join with me and they’re like ‘I love you and everything, but wrestling, I’m sorry, I will get completely destroyed,’” she said. “And I’m like, ‘OK, well I’ve never wrestled in my life. If I can do it, you can, too.’”
A bigger mission is behind those passing-time hallway chit-chats, though.
“I just want to show girls and anyone that if they really want to do it, they really can,” she said.
Being involved in extracurriculars has centered her focus and transcended any takedown, too.
“And I also think that when you’re involved in other things — a sport, a club, extracurricular, music, anything — it encourages you to keep your grades up,” she said.
Gardea has drastically improved her grades since her junior year and is eyeing a future in either law or the medical field.
“I want to go into college. I want to make my family proud. I want to continue my learning,” she said.
Knowing her GPA needed to improve to do so, she has been going in before school to receive extra help with math, her accountability to her teammates often driving her to those morning study halls.
“I didn’t want to be ineligible, because that would mean I wouldn’t be able to practice and my wrestling partner would also be disappointed because I wouldn’t be there for her or for them,” she said.
Falling flat on your face — and standing back up
In her historic Soroco Invitational victory on Dec. 11, the 100-pound Gardea wrestled in the 105-pound class.
“I was so scared,” she said. “This is the first time wrestling in my life. I’m going up a weight class. I was terrified.”
Stepping onto the mat, Gardea reached out to shake hands with her first opponent; her eyes froze on the intimidating muscles bulging from the athlete’s forearms.
“I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is the end of me. She’s going to destroy me,’” she said
Hoping to simply “not fall down super fast,” Gardea did just that, face-planting for all to see.
“I was so embarrassed,” she said. “The whole gym just saw me fall on my face.”
After being dispatched quickly by her first opponent, the daughter of an opposing team’s coach, Vasquez walked up to his pupil and said, “After your first match that you lose, you gain some wings. You’re like ‘OK, this is not going to happen to me again, I’m not going to be thrown on my face again.’”
It stuck with his determined fighter.
“I kept remembering that. I’m not going to get thrown on my face again,” Gardea said.
In her second match, she pinned her competitor.
“’Oh my god, I won,’” she remembered thinking, looking up at her cheering teammates. “I was like, ‘Wow, I really did grow some wings.’”
A mission from the mat
Gardea’s drive to maximize herself is something other teachers have noticed, too.
“Kim is tenacious and once she sets her mind to something, there’s no stopping her,” T.J. Simpson, a physical education teacher at Battle Mountain and Gardea’s AVID instructor for the past four years, stated.
“She’s not one to be intimidated and never backs down from a challenge. Whether she’s in the gym, on the wrestling mat or in the classroom, she pushes herself to be her very best every day.”
Her goal is to get her own plaque — given to state qualifiers and emblazoned in gold for podium placers — up in the wrestling room.
“I really want to be the first girl to have my plaque up there,” Gardea said. “Because not only was I the first girl to place, now I want to take it a further step and show girls that they can also do it if they really put their mind to it.”
Simpson concurs with the bright outlook on the young Husky’s future.
“She’s grown into a confident young woman during her time at BMHS, and I believe this is only the beginning.”