Grand expectations, history collide for pair of Taos women warriors

Duran duo hoping to make history, bring home gold in first-ever tournament

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It hasn’t been easy.

The early morning practices, dietary restrictions, getting beaten by the boys, lingering aches and pains, injuries and the stigma that comes with being a female in a male-dominated sport come with the territory.

But despite all the obstacles that would ordinarily stop the best of us, the Duran sisters trudge on— with an inner spirit replete with positivity, confidence and strength. And the hope that all the hard work will pay off soon.

Elisha and AnnaLiz Duran are a pair of grapplers on the Taos Tigers wrestling team and pioneers in their own right. They are not the first female wrestlers from Taos vying to achieve respect and that elusive first female victory, But, they are pioneers nonetheless as they link arms with other female wrestlers in New Mexico and shine a light on an emerging sport.

Intertwined with the 2018 New Mexico state wrestling championship, the New Mexico Activities Association will host its first girls wrestling tournament. The girls-only exhibition will run in conjunction with the state meet at the Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho Feb. 16-17.

According to weight assessment data, 115 girls are participating in wrestling across the state. Eight weight classes (101, 106, 111, 121, 131, 143, 160, 185-pound divisions) with eight girls per class will participate in the combined-classification exhibition tournament. A total of 38 high schools will be represented in this event.

AnnaLiz is slated to wrestle in the 106-pound division, and Elisha will compete in the 131-pound division.

“Girls wrestling is one of the fastest growing sports nationwide,” said Dusty Young, associate director for the NMAA in a news announcement released Feb. 12. “The NMAA is excited to see if an event like this will increase female interest and participation in the sport here in New Mexico.”

Currently, high school state championships are held for girls in California, Texas, Oregon, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Texas, Tennessee and Washington. Also, all 44 member National Collegiate Athletic Association, National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics and National Junior College Athletic Association institutions in the nation offer women’s wrestling programs. Of the 38 member colleges of the National Wrestling Coaches Association that sponsor varsity women’s teams, over 30 offer athletic scholarships to athletes.

The closest college to Taos offering women’s wrestling is Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas. Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado offers club wrestling for women seeking to attend college and continue their sport after high school. Although there is a league and national championship for college club women’s teams, CSU does not offer scholarships through wrestling.

Six years now

Both gimpy and moving in slow motion due to smarting muscles and fatigue, the Durans never let it show on their faces as they exited Otero Gymnasium with their mother, after the Taos Duals Jan. 17.

Elisha is a senior at Vista Grande and has been wrestling for six years now. “I am absolutely looking forward to state,” said the elder Duran, grinning ear to ear. “I was supposed to compete last year, but I couldn’t cut weight.”

Cutting weight is a term all wrestlers are familiar with as athletes forego their favorite foods and increase aerobic exercise to maintain (or lose) their body weight to remain eligible to compete within their weight class. The challenge for wrestlers is finding ways to balance the necessary weight loss  while keeping their muscle mass and stamina.

Although Elisha has not competed against another girl this year, she has in the past and really likes her chances in her weight class.

“I want to bring home a state title for my community and my school,” said Elisha, “But more importantly, I’m going to look back on this moment and say I was a part of something historical. To me, being one of the first participants in the upcoming state tournament is really cool.”

“This is a huge step for the girls,” said Robert Valencia, head coach of the Taos Tigers, wrapping up his fifth year at the helm. “It’s been a long time coming.”

According to the NMAA sports specific committee, which meets twice a year and is tasked with reviewing and reporting rule changes and updates, female wrestling has been a subject of interest for the past two years. During the October 2016 committee meeting, the NMAA’s stance on female wrestling showed there was not enough demand or interest to warrant its inclusion. But after reviewing participation numbers from the 2016-17 season, the NMAA decided to implement the exhibition event for girls in 2018.

“Words cannot express what this can become,” said Valencia, alluding to the overwhelming support from all the coaches in their respective association that has evolved from apprehensive to welcoming in recent years. “This is a paradigm shift for wrestling in New Mexico, and I think it will grow the overall interest in the sport.”

Sparring partners

AnnaLiz is a sophomore at Taos High School and has accompanied her older sister for two years now.

“At first, I was kinda iffy about wrestling,” said AnnaLiz, who has since immersed herself in the sport and has set grand expectations for her career as well. “But soon I realized I have the skills to totally do this.”

“Yeah, I compete against the boys,” said AnnaLiz. “But when I go out on the mat, I’m giving it my all and I’m going to put up a fight.”

The passion for the sport is evident in the way the two sisters speak about their hero, Helen Maroulis: the first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in women’s wrestling.

Maroulis a 53kg (117-pound) freestyle wrestler won gold at the 2016 summer games by defeating the three-time gold medalist, Saori Yoshida from Japan. Maroulis was a bit of a trailblazer in high school as well, becoming the first girl to place at the Maryland wrestling championships in 2006. Against boys, she placed sixth in the 112-pound division.

Along with the self-imposed expectations, each sister has high expectations for the other in their respective classes.

“We push each other hard in practice,” said Elisha, who appreciates having her sister as a teammate and sparring partner. “She keeps reminding me that a state title is on the line and the chance to make history is right now.”

The sibling competition tends to spill into their home life as well after practices. “Our mom doesn’t always like it, but sometimes we work on moves on the living room floor or on the outdoor trampoline at home,” said AnnaLiz. “It just shows you how much we love this sport.”

Stronger, confident

Like their coach, the two female grapplers are hoping for a paradigm shift.

“More girls need to come out and participate in wrestling,” said Elisha, who hopes to continue training well after the completion of the state event. “I’ve never felt stronger in my life, and I know there are some tough girls out there that would love this type of activity.”

Both girls attest to the mental boost they get from the physical demands placed on the body as well.

“I’m not the type to get mentally defeated,” said AnnaLiz, who also plays football for Taos in the fall. “My confidence level grows with every match.”

For Elisha and AnnaLiz, the years of training and sacrifice will culminate in a series of bursts, lunges and twists in the upcoming championship tournament. For AnnaLiz, she will be pulling for her sister as she wades through her respective bracket. She will expect nothing but the best. Ditto for Elisha.

The first round of the girls event is slated to take place at 12:30 p.m Feb. 16. The finals are scheduled for Feb. 17 at 1 p.m. Cost to enter the event Is $8 for adults, $5 for students, seniors and military. Day passes are available for $12 and allow for re-entry into the arena.

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