Ariana Zemke moved across the world to wrestle for Yelm High School.
That’s the reason — the only reason — she is here.
Zemke, who spent the past year attending high school in Japan, said this mat room — and she’s wrestled in plenty of them — feels like home.
“It’s nice to be back in my mat room,” she said. “I’m glad to be a captain, and to be able to lead these girls, and give them everything I have to offer them.”
Now a senior, Zemke, who currently wrestles at the 145-pound weight class, is making the best of short time.
She scouts competition, follows the rankings on Washington Wrestling Report’s website — she’s ranked fifth in the state in her weight class — and works out outside of practice when necessary.
It’s all to make sure she can last six minutes, she says, to make sure she will be in top physical and mental shape for Mat Classic XXIX in February.
“I look forward to practice every day, just knowing that I’ve done my 100 (percent) in that mat room, and worked with everybody, and soaked in what I could learn,” she said.
‘IT’S ALL FREESTYLE’
Sgt. 1st Class Greg Zemke, who works in Army intelligence, knew his family would be relocating again.
Japan was the destination, and the Zemke family moved there before Ariana’s junior year. Greg, who also helped coach at Yelm, said multiple families volunteered to have Ariana live with them if it meant she could stay stateside.
He said he wasn’t ready for that at the time. Wherever Greg and his wife, Julie, moved, their four kids followed along. Ariana has an older brother and two younger sisters.
Ariana was born in Washington state. She’s also lived in Germany, Texas, Arizona and Kansas. But this is the first time the family has been apart.
“I’ve moved every three years my whole life, so that wasn’t surprising,” she said. “We had been (in Yelm) for three years. Eighth, ninth, 10th grade I was here, so I was expecting to move.
“But, I was also expecting that fairy tale ending of staying in one high school for four years.”
In Japan, she attended Zama American High School on base, near Tokyo. And she continued to wrestle.
Wrestling, as it has been since Ariana was 7 years old, was a priority. But wrestling in Japan was different than what she was used to.
“In Japan, it’s all freestyle,” Greg said.
Certainly a change from the traditional folkstyle wrestling that is most common in the United States, which Ariana has participated in for most of her career.
She did have some prior experience in Greco and freestyle, but said abruptly switching was a drastic change.
The periods are longer, the motions and points are different, and she returned to wrestling all boys, much as she did in her early years.
“That was a shock to me, because I’d never been in a freestyle mat room,” Ariana said. “I had no clue how that went. … It’s really hard being a competitive wrestler who held your own in your own mat room, to going into the boys’ mat room, wrestling freestyle, not knowing what you’re doing and re-learning.”
She said it was as if she had never wrestled, but Greg said she caught on by the second week.
Ariana set the same goal she has every time she steps on the mat — don’t get pinned.
“If I lose, I want them to have scored points and worked for it,” she said. “I always feel like I gave it to them if I pinned myself, because I would have made the mistake to let them pin me. Being there, not getting pinned by the boys was my goal.”
She was pinned once her entire season, in her final match, but that was it.
“She did really well for never having wrestled freestyle competitively,” Greg said.
Ariana said she enjoyed the experience, and expanded her view on different styles of wrestling.
“We were a small, close-knit family,” she said. “It was different, but I was really happy I got to wrestle with that team and that coach.”
A coaching change in Japan after the season, and the desire to return to Yelm, sealed it. When she attended the state tournament in February to support her former teammates, Yelm coach Amy Earley started hearing chatter that Ariana would return.
Earley knew the logistics of an overseas move would be baffling, so she was that much more impressed when the Zemke family pulled it off.
“That just shows how much her parents adore here, they adore all of those girls,” Earley said. “They really saw how much it impacted her, and they made it so she could come back and have this opportunity.”
Ariana and Julie moved back to Yelm. Greg and Ariana’s two younger sisters still live in Japan.
“Everybody has been super nice and welcoming since we came back,” Ariana said. “They understood. It was all for my wrestling.”
They bought a trailer, and often stay with friends, with the thought that Ariana will head off to college after graduating, and Julie will return to the family.
“It was hard,” Greg said. “It wasn’t an easy decision to make, while at the same time it was. It wasn’t easy to swallow, but we kind of knew this is what we had to do.”
Greg has returned to watch Ariana wrestle three times this season, including the Hammerhead Invitational, where she placed first.
He was supposed to be on a plane back to Japan last Thursday, but extended his leave to attend the Kelso Girls Invite over the weekend.
Ariana said it’s difficult not having her dad around — he’s coached her since she started wrestling a decade ago — but is happy to be back.
And there is another tournament Greg plans to be in town for.
“I will definitely be back for state,” he said.
‘I’M NOT ENDING HERE’
Ariana’s renewed sense of focus is what Earley notices most.
“When you don’t have something, you realized how much you appreciate it,” Earley said.
Since Ariana returned from Japan, she’s more aggressive on the mat, and has developed into a leader.
“She pushes people,” said teammate Tayleen Reach, who often spars with Ariana. “She pushes them in a good way. She really helps out in the mat room, and helps with confidence, and it just builds.”
Earley said she thinks the move to Japan gave Ariana more drive to succeed.
“You don’t earn your medals at tournaments, you earn them at practice,” Earley said. “What are you willing to do in these four walls to get to that podium spot? She understands it. She really does.”
“It’s not really that you learn anything new your senior year,” Ariana said. “You just dial in on the moves that you know and you do, and you make them work.”
Ariana is looking for a return trip to the Tacoma Dome next month, and a podium spot, but that isn’t all. She also returned to Yelm with the ambition to wrestle at the college level.
“That’s my big goal in life is to go off and keep wrestling,” Ariana said. “I’m not ending here. I’m going to keep going.”