By R. Alan Richardson
So, you want to wrestle? No problem. The Morgan County Middle School wrestling program and Coach Marcus Crowe accepts all comers. But, what if you just so happen to be a female? Maybe there is a problem? Who knows? What if no other girl before you has tried to bridge that gap and break through that barrier? Could you do it? Would you do it?
For seventh grader Leigha Helton, the answer to all of the above questions would be a loud and proud, “YES!” The 5’6”, 109 pound 12-year-old did just that this past season. She became the first female in Morgan County wrestling history to become a part of the all-male squad. Was it easy? Nope. Were there challenges along the way? Yep. Was it worth it? She would tell you yes.
The first-year wrestler and daughter of Julie Patton and Bazel Ruark has been an avid outdoorsman/woman her entire life. She loves skating, shooting guns, hunting, and anything that goes along with it. Her other interests include working with poultry and studying meats evaluation with the FFA and being a member of FCA at MCMS. She plans on running cross-country next season as an eighth grader and enjoys most her English and Social Studies classes.
She told us, “I enjoy hunting deer and wild hogs. I got to clean my first one (hog) last week. We can hunt off our back porch on our property (seven acres in the Beaver Dam Area near Apalachee) so I hope to kill my first deer this year.” Helton got her first rifle at the age of six. It was a pink .22 caliber. She’s been hunting ever since.
After meeting friends while living in Madison County that wrestled, she became enamored with the sport as a sixth grader. Upon moving to Morgan County later that year, she became a manager for the wrestling squad at MCMS. After doing some conditioning with the guys in the preseason, she says that some of the wrestlers encouraged her to join the team. This feisty young lady accepted the offer and went about proving herself to those naysayers that she could compete with them.
“In a way, I’m trying to prove that girls can do guys’ sports. People ask me why all the time. I know a lot of the guys on the team and they inspired me to do it. Coach Darsey encouraged me as well. I owe a lot to the guys like Seth Sentinella, Will Furr, and Jacere Cooper for encouraging me,” she said.
She continued, “All the shocked faces and judgements, it inspires me. I want to keep trying to inspire younger girls to express themselves. If you care about what other people think about you, you’re never gonna branch out and make history.” Asked if she wanted to bridge that gap she wholeheartedly agreed.
The A-B honor roll student would love to pursue wrestling throughout high school and beyond. Her mother noted, “I’ve done quite a bit of research about women’s wrestling opportunities at the college level. There are a number of universities that offer scholarships in the sport. I was a little shocked by it. Appalachian State is one that I noticed and UGA has a women’s wrestling club.” Her daughter added that professional wrestling and the Olympics were also things that might interest her in the future. Plan B is studying biology or marine biology when she heads off to college.
The sport is one that is very hands-on and personal. We asked her if that bothered her. She commented, “It doesn’t faze me at all. I’m a country girl and can take care of myself. If they try to be immature and flirty, I just put them in their place real quick.” Mom agreed. “I’m not really concerned right now. If she continues through high school with the boys, I might be a little more concerned. She’s tough and has been taught how to take care of things like that.”
Another talking point came up with being isolated from her team during pre-game by having to use another locker room. “Sometimes being isolated like that is good for me. I get to get away by myself and get away from all the aggression. It’s just me and where I can focus on my next match.”
Coach Darsey said, “Being a girl wrestler anywhere is tough but being the first girl wrestler from a county that has such deep roots in the sport is really tough. Generally, boys are physically stronger at that age and she really had to be determined to compete. Not to mention that being the only female to travel and practice had to be intimidating. But she was not.”
For now, Leigha is just concentrating on next season now that the wrestling season has ended. She made some big gains during the year getting her first two wins with pins over opponents at the Madison County Mustang Classic. “Right now I’m just focusing on learning moves, positions, holds, and techniques while I gain more experience in the sport.”