When freshman Karina Juarez told some friends that she was going to tryout for the wrestling team at Fallbrook High School, they only fueled her fire with their response.
“They said, ‘why would you do that, you’re a girl,'” recalled Juarez, who promptly responded with, “Because I’m a girl, and I can do everything anyone else can.”
Juarez tried out and made the team, which came as no surprise to her mother, Rachelle Luna, who didn’t blink an eye when her daughter informed her that she was taking up wrestling and would be battling boys on the mat.
“I only have girls, so there’s no discrimination here,” said Luna. “Everything the boys can do, so can the girls. She likes to be active, and likes to take on a challenge. I’m very proud of her.”
Juarez said one of the reasons she went out for the wrestling team was the fact no girls were on it. She likes being a trailblazer.
“I like being the first to do stuff, to be out there and stand out and help others to get out of their shell and try something new,” said Juarez.
Juarez said she “fell in love” with wrestling during the tryouts, noting that the sport challenges both body and mind.
“I like the whole aspect of it,” said Juarez. “I like the physical part of it, and having to learn different moves. And there’s a counter (move) for every counter, so you could be going in circles countering people.”
Juarez said the boys on the team have treated her just as she hoped they would – as just another teammate.
“They’ve treated me very well,” said Juarez. “They are respectful. They like my enthusiasm and treat me as one of the guys. It’s a nice community, a nice family of wrestlers.”
Curt Permito, who stepped up to take over as wrestling coach in early January when Lawrence Jones vacated the job, said Juarez earned the respect of her teammates.
“If you go out and you do what’s asked of you in practice, you get respect,” said Permito. “And she gets it, because she does put the work in. They really do respect her.”
Permito described Juarez as determined and courageous.
“She has a fierce determination whenever she faces any opponent, especially because she has to go up against male counterparts from the other school,” said Permito. “And any time you step on the mat in a wrestling match, it takes courage. You’re out there on your own, there are no other teammates to blame things on, and it’s rarely the ref’s fault. It’s just you and a hundred eyeballs on you. So, to have Karina go out and face her male counterparts, I think shows a lot of courage.”
Juarez wrestles in the 126-pound weight class, and since sophomore teammate Mike Nolen also wrestles at 126, they constantly square up in practice. And on Tuesdays, when teammates in the same weight class have the opportunity to challenge each other in a full match for the right to represent the varsity team in its Thursday night match, Juarez always elects to challenge Nolen.
“She could say, ‘well, he beat me last week, I’ll just be happy wrestling JV,’ but every week when she has the chance, she goes out there and wrestles Mike for that Thursday night,” said Permito. “Now that’s determination.”
“I had it (the varsity spot) originally at the beginning of the year and then Mike challenged me and won by a point,” said Juarez. “I haven’t yet beat him, but I will. It’s always countering each other because we already know each other’s moves. He usually beats me by points. There’s only been one time he’s beaten me by a pin.”
Juarez said she and Nolen have a good relationship.
“We’re friends,” said Juarez, adding that they are both in JROTC program at Fallbrook High School. “He’s in my platoon.”
Juarez, at the time of this interview (Feb. 8), said she had beaten three of the four girl wrestlers she had faced in JV competition. She said she had three victories over male rivals at the varsity level, but added she had more losses than wins against her male counterparts.
Juarez said the victories – in sport where you are out there by yourself – are sweet.
“It just feels great when you do win and you have your hand in the air and everyone is cheering for you, and you know, ‘I did that,'” said Juarez.
Considering she has only been wrestling for a little more than three months, Juarez figures to only improve on the mat. She said she plans to wrestle as a sophomore, junior, and senior.
Juarez said she encourages other girls who have considered wrestling to “just do it.”
“Just go for it,” said Juarez. “You can’t lose anything in doing it. You’ll always be learning.”