Former Puyallup High wrestler Whitney Conder has spent a long time combating a world that often shunned her, doubting her commitment to wrestling.
No one saw the possibility of her perhaps becoming something truly amazing. But she always believed it could happen.
“(In high school) Whitney came up to me and told me she was going to go to the Olympics and represent the U.S.,” recalled Bryan Bartelson, Conder’s wrestling coach at Puyallup High. “She said she was going to wrestle in the Olympics and win gold, and she’s worked hard to be within reach of that goal.”
Conder not only recognized the chance at the time, she used it as a guide to help her accomplish something great in the wrestling world.
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“I want prove that I can be the best in the world,” Conder said.
And now just one month away from the 2015 World Wrestling Championships held in the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Conder enters the tournament as the world’s top-ranked female wrestler at 116 pounds.
If Conder finishes in the top five in Las Vegas, then she will move on to represent the United States at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.
“It is a qualification for the Olympics, and I feel pretty confident going into it,” Conder said of the September tournament. “I now need to reset and prepare myself for the world (next month), and in a year as well.”
This quest of Conder’s wasn’t supposed to get just this far. She wasn’t supposed to just reach Rio De Janeiro and be fine with it. Her goal from the start was simple: win gold and become one of the best ever.
“She (might) be the best wrestler to come out of (the state of) Washington,” Bartelson said.
Perhaps it was childhood foolishness or stubbornness that set her on the path to never setting limitations on herself.
“She knew what she wanted to do … she took pride in what she did,” said Monte Conder, her father. “She always had pride in what she did, and took the extra effort to become better.”
Conder, 27, always had that tenacity about her. Whenever she stepped into a gym, she was ready to work with her teammates. For her, it was about getting better and improving herself. Her goal in joining wrestling was about reaching this goal she set for herself.
“I saw it as a chance to improve myself and help the team,” she said.
For the boys on her team or the ones she wrestled, it became an invasion into their world, one typically dominated by males. But nothing was going to Conder — not perceptions and certainly not sexism she faced.
“(When) I started wrestling at the age of eight, none of the boys wanted to wrestle me because I was a girl,” Conder recalled. “It did continue where some boys didn’t want to lose to me — they didn’t want to lose to a girl.”
In a sport world about domination and masculinity where it’s true brute strength versus strength, it’s a hard pill to swallow losing to someone — even someone as talented as Conder.
At the time, she wasn’t the No. 1-ranked wrestler in her weight class in the world. Yet the notion that the guys could lose to Conder was too much to handle.
“I had one guy say it was against his religion,” Conder said. “I found out later that we have the same religion and he almost did wrestle me (later on), but he still backed out.”
Backing out or backing down was never a part of the fiber of Conder’s being. It didn’t matter that there wasn’t a “real” girls wrestling league in the state.
Because of the work from females such as Conder, the state now has a bubbling new generation of girls not only joining the sport but keeping it thriving.
“What you saw at state last year — what you see from my daughters, Brooklyn and Jordyn, is from watching the work Whitney put in while here (at Puyallup),” Bartelson said. “Because of women joining wrestling, the sport is stronger — the girls are better, the boys are better.
“Because of women like Whitney, wrestling was saved.”
Years gone by
Not many prep wrestlers with their names logged into the state’s record books have had success in wrestling past high school. Not many at all.
“Look at all the past wrestlers who are four-time or three-time state champions,” Bartelson said. “How many of them went on to wrestle in the Olympics? Not many, if any, and it shows you how hard it is to wrestle on a world level.”
Yet, here is Conder — a wrestler who only placed sixth and seventh at state in the Class 4A meet with the boys — with a No. 1 world ranking and the chance to claim gold next summer.
With the passage of time, the wrestling landscape has changed in the state. When Conder was in high school, the girls state wrestling bracket was often barren as far too few girls participated. But not last year.
Last year’s Mat Classic tournament at the Tacoma Dome had a different sight than the norm, with the girls brackets full — with female wrestlers now reaching the skill level, statewide, that Conder displayed during her high school tenure.
“(The girls) are now wrestling at the level Whitney was wrestling at when she was here,” Bartelson said.
Years of work and years of pushing through the naysayers led up to this breakthrough in wrestling. Because of Conder, wrestlers like Puyallup senior Jordyn Bartelson have the chance to reach state immortality and claim a fourth state title.
It’s a possibility not even thought about during Conder’s time.
“I see that the growth girls wrestling in Washington is because of me and the girls who came before me,” said Conder, who graduated in 2006. “We proved that girls are just as competitive.”
“When she comes back, people recognize her and come up to talk to her,” Monte Conder said. “She’s a humble person … She’ll sign their autographs and take pictures. She understands that she has inspired people here.”
Conder is only a few steps away from accomplishing everything she has ever dreamed, everything many have doubted she could achieve.
“I know I can go out and win in (Las Vegas) and then win a gold medal next year,” Conder said. “To win a medal representing the United States would be a great honor.”
The incredible quest that Conder began in Puyallup is about to come into fruition. In one year’s time, Conder won’t just have the chance of becoming one of the state’s greatest wrestlers of all time. She’ll become one of the nation’s greatest.
It’s the vision only Conder foresaw all those years ago.