Editor’s note: Aymi Paradise-Flores first told this story on stage at the Des Moines Storytellers Project’s “Growing Up: Celebrating family and culture.” The Des Moines Storytellers Project is a series of storytelling events in which community members work with Register journalists to tell true, first-person stories live on stage. An edited version appears below.
The first thing you learn is how to fall.
While most kindergarteners were just learning to write their names, my second-degree Judo black-belt, sensei-of-a-dad taught at a studio in Fort Dodge, and I was learning Judo with him.
So I practiced falling, again and again and again. I curved like a rolly-polly, tucked my chin, dropped from standing, spread my arms like an eagle, and slapped the mat. Slapping the mat is important because it absorbs the force of the fall, my dad taught me.
I was excited to be like him. Dad always called me his No. 1 son, and I had cowboy boots and a 1980s glitter-shine shirt that said so in cursive.
Some of my earliest memories were of him going to area Judo tournaments and earning a basement-full of trophies.
Then we moved to Humboldt, Iowa. The studio lessons stopped, but never the learning.
One of my dad’s favorite “teaching moments” was to single-leg trip people in a Judo move called Osoto Gari while they walked past, holding onto their shirts so they don’t have a hard fall. It was warped, but it was normal in our house. And even now, Osoto Gari is still my favorite Judo move.
Fast forward to the late 80s. I was in 7th grade at Ballard Junior High School in Huxley. Huxley is a conservative small town in the middle of a trio of other small towns — Slater, Cambridge, and Kelley — between Ames and Ankeny that make up Ballard School District.
In the 1990s, Huxley had about 2,500 people, mostly of Norwegian descent, and was small enough to ride bikes to school.
We still typed on typewriters with plywood boxes covering our hands for key memorization, mixtapes were actually tapes — recorded on cassettes off the radio, and McDonald’s served burgers in styrofoam containers and drinks in plastic-coated paper cups.
At the same time, I was falling into unhealthy habits — all I did was come home, eat, and take a nap — and found an angry streak: Also like my dad.
Judo workouts were his anger-management, and they would become mine, too.
So in 7th grade, I begged Dad to do Judo again. And so we did, with the Iowa State Judo Club.
After practice, I was exhausted — too tired to argue, just like my dad would say. And my body felt better, stronger.
I felt a sense of accomplishment.
At 13, I was the only non-college kid in the club, so I played Judo with Jen, the only girl within a decade of my age who taught me how to do arm bars, how to choke, and how to win against those older, heavier, and wiser than me.
I won gold at the Iowa Games that year. In fact, both Dad and I took gold in the summer of 1988.
Now it’s 9th grade, circa 1990-1991. I wasn’t practicing Judo. Dad got busy and my whole 9th grade year was spent — you guessed it — coming home, eating and sleeping. My anger was getting the best of me and turning inward into depression. I yearned for the whole-body workout, connection, and camaraderie I found in Judo. I wanted to fall again.
In 10th grade, I found wrestling. It seemed like a good fit; but there was just one problem — not only was there not a girls team, there were no girls’ wrestling at all,
To my knowledge, there were only two other girls wrestling in Iowa at the time, and there had never been a female wrestler at Ballard High … ever.
I joined the Ballard wrestling team as the only girl
I joined Ballard High School’s boys’ wrestling team, and, thanks to Title IX, they couldn’t deny me.
The principal and coaches worried about me getting hurt. But my dad wasn’t. He said I was the kind of a tomboy who broke a tooth playing football during 6th grade recess and kept going.
But I needed to work as hard as anyone else, they said. So I did.
My dad had idealistic thoughts on how things would go when I joined Ballard’s “boys’” wrestling team, and he felt many in the community were supportive and curious.
But reality was different.
I remember my first pin at practice; it was magical. Now, I’d been at practice for months, getting my technique down. Conditioning running three-flight rounds of stairs. Lifting weights until my legs matched the guys’.
My wrestling partner thought it was his lucky day to wrestle the girl, the one with the big tits. While his mind was on the wrong kind of moves, mine was on winning-wrestling moves.
Standing position. First I tried to pick his ankle. Then double-leg dive. Nothing. I dove into the fireman’s carry, lifted him over my shoulder in an arc. Things seemed to go in slow-motion as I brought him to the mat, his shoulders rocked into a pin. In Judo, it would have scored Ippon, the perfectly-executed winning throw.
But the next day, that wrestling partner told people that he let me win because he felt me up.
The most beautiful moment in my wrestling career was tainted by a dude who was too insecure to lose to a girl, even in practice.
I did have some allies on the wrestling team: Head Coach Larry Jackson, who praised me for mastering the technicality of every move, Mark Hernandez, my main wrestling partner, and a younger teammate Forest Mahaffey.
But still, there were matches where boys forfeited because they refused to wrestle a girl. At practice, most of my “teammates” ignored me like I didn’t exist, until they were about my hair on the mat. I dressed in the locker room with cheerleaders. Sat in the front of the bus alone to and from away games.
And then, in conservative Huxley, many didn’t think I should be wrestling at all. There was a lot of speculation and innuendo about wrestling me, especially by high schoolers.
My decision to join the boys’ wrestling team cost my dad his deaconship at Campus Baptist Church, and his longtime church friends denounced him for the immorality of letting me wrestle boys.
People thought I was going out to wrestle for show and for attention. The Tri-County Times did a story, and my photo was an enormous, above the fold feature of me practicing a move on the wrestling dummy.
But I wasn’t out for that. I wrestled to prove to myself that I could do it; to push to limits I didn’t know I could achieve. And the more people didn’t want me there, the more I wanted to stay. Even my dad told me later that the only reason he let me go out for wrestling was because he didn’t think I’d last a week.
I lasted two years.
My wrestling paved the way for girls in Iowa to join the sport
I got beat — a lot. In fact, I never won a match.
But I wrestled. I never had a fair fight. I never wrestled a girl. And even though I never won a match, I celebrated the successes, even the small ones.
So now when I tell people I was Ballard’s first female wrestler, I only talk about the lessons, the ways in which I took straw and spun them into gold.
From this lonely, alienated, and ostracized place, I learned coping skills and how to deal with frustration, anger and depression, how to prize my growth above society’s standards.
I learned persistence, resilience, and empathy — superpowers that have carried me from a humid Huxley wrestling room to Houston, Texas, and back. And my experience as an outsider has allowed me to connect with the Flex students I teach at Hoover High School.
I became optimistic, like my dad, that I could withstand any storm.
Looking back, I realized that my experience at Ballard is bigger than just my experiences alone.
While discrimination hasn’t stopped, I helped pave the way for girls to enter Iowa’s male-dominated wrestling world — including my sister, who followed my footsteps and wrestled on the Ballard boys’ wrestling team just a few years after I did.
I thought I was just wrestling for myself, but I wasn’t. I wrestled for girls to have their own team. For girls to earn wrestling scholarships. For girls to have fair fights.
Fast forward to 2022. I was watching March Madness with my seven-year-old daughter when she asked me why girls and boys can’t just be on the same sports teams together like she is with her Cub Scout Den.
I still have no answer for her.
But I do know this: Last month, Ballard voted to create a girls’ wrestling team. And my daughter will continue to pave the way for future generations of girls in sports.
This is the first time in nearly 30 years that I’ve told this story. I’ve buried its trauma for decades, and even changed my name to disguise the identity. I’ve been hiding for my whole adult life.
I am Amy Foell – Foell, pronounced “fell” — yes, as in the past-tense of fall — Ballard’s first female wrestler and one of the first few in this state, and this is my story.
ABOUT THE STORYTELLER: Aymi Paradise-Flores is a credit recovery flex teacher and debate and speech head coach at Hoover High School. Outside of school, she’s a mom of three neurodiverse kids under the age of 12, a Pack 163 Cub Scout leader, an Audible fanatic and a pandemic gardener.
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