Recently, senior Yelena Makoyed and graduate assistant Amanda Martinez competed at Team USA world trials. Along with head coach Joe Norton, on this week’s Cardinal Corner they spoke about their journeys in wrestling, what this competition meant to them, and what they still hope to achieve.
Women’s Wrestling at North Central
North Central has a long and storied history with wrestling. The school first fielded a program all the way back in 1932. However, for the first 74 years of Cardinal wrestling the team was solely comprised of men.
That changed six years ago, when head coach and 2010 North Central alumnus Joe Norton brought the idea of a women’s team to the athletic department and school administration.
He got a green light, and it’s been all systems go for Cardinals women’s wrestling ever since.
JN: As we kind of climbed the ranks with our men’s team, I think people in the area maybe started to take us a little more seriously in wrestling. And it was in 2016 when during the Rio Olympics when Helen Maroulis won the first ever women’s gold medal for the United States in women’s wrestling in the Olympics.
Women’s wrestling kind of blew up right there.
We did our research and took the necessary steps to figure out what we would need to do to make it happen. When Yelena and Amanda were in that first recruiting class, there were only nine girls in that first class. Those were two easy ones to really build around, not just because they win but because they do everything right in terms of in the classroom, on the wrestling matt, in their diets, the sacrifices that they’re making. So that really helps us to build momentum into 27 women in year two and now over 40 in year three.
Finding the Right Fit
Senior and deafening individual national champion Yelena Makoyed and graduate assistant Amanda Martinez are the current stars of the show for Norton’s team. Both didn’t dream of one day winning Olympic gold or even being wrestlers, but found it was a unique sport and unique challenge that fit them as athletes in ways previous sports they’d tried never have.
AM: I’ve always been on team sports my whole life. I did softball, basketball, volleyball. All those team sports I was used to that, but something where you’re own work ethic is what’s gonna show up on the mat I think that was what stuck me with it.
YM: I wish I could say there was some cool reason as to why I started wrestling, but I kind of just felt like it. I really enjoy the challenge. It was really fun for me and I just liked how hard it was. I was actually gonna give up the first week and then I looked around and was like ‘wait if that girl can do it, and that girl can do it then I definitely can too.’
Achievement Despite Inexperience
Despite only each having a few years of experience, bot have reached the top of the sport for their age incredibly quickly. For the second year, both competed at the Team USA world trials: Yelena at 70 kg and Amanda at 55 kg. Yelena qualified by finishing third in her class, while Martienz barely missed out with a fourth place finish. While it was a validating experience for wrestlers who still consider themselves novices, it was not surprise to their coaches.
JN: I think it was an expectation for us. I think a lot of times we believe in them maybe even before they do. From day one with both of these two girls and maybe even a couple others, as far as Coach Cook and I were concerned these are girls who should be competing for world teams. Maybe they don’t know it yet.
AM: I don’t think, even now, it doesn’t feel like you’re supposed to be or that I’m at the level that I’m at but I’m just the type of person that works hard, so it doesn’t matter. I know I’m gonna work to be the best. What’s the point of doing something if you can’t be the best at it?
Taking It to the Next Level
YM: I kind of realized I was pretty decent when I won state senior year of high school. When I really started thinking about Olympics was I think last year. Last year I was like ‘wait, Olympics really aren’t that far away from my grasp. It’s right there I’ve just gotta work for it.
Their next Olympic opportunity will be in 2024 in Paris, with multiple more Team USA trials and Olympic qualifiers between now and then. Experiences like last week prove that Yelena and Amanda belong on the stage they find themselves on, now the work continues not only for them but the entire program to continue the push forward and upward.
JN: The relationship we try to build with them is ‘I’m gonna do my job for you every time.’ So once you do your job for me we’re going to accomplish pretty great things. You feel like you’ve prepared them, and you know that you’ve prepared them but then when they step foot on the mat you have no control over what happens. These two in particular just keeping proving to us over and over that they’re going to get the job done.
What Comes Next
The collegiate season begins November 6th, so for the last several months there was no other focus but the world team trials, which further emphasized just how unique and special an experience and challenge the competition will pose.
AM: It’s a little different because we had so much time in between. Usually in a school season you compete this weekend, then you’re competing the next weekend. It doesn’t give you that much time to overstress about the tournament. But, this one was you’re preparing all summer for this.
YM: I placed third so I was like hungry for more, you know? Third doesn’t satisfy me, I want first place. Now I know what I’m capable of, I made the national team but I can do better. Now it’s just working hard, that’s it that’s all there is just working hard
JN: You show future generations of Cardinal wrestlers or recruits, prospects, that that can be done here. So Yelena’s going to have a big national championship banner on the wall. So when a recruit comes in here she can see ‘I can win a national title.’
Regardless of what more Yelena and Amanda accomplish, their legacy has been cemented as groundbreaking figures for what promises to be a future full of a accomplishment for Cardinal wrestling.
JN: I’ll always remember them as trailblazers for us, and I think our alumni see that and appreciate that and the administration too. And that’s one of the reasons why we’re in a pretty special place.
As much as they do want to achieve more on the mat, like making an Olympic team, what’s most important for Yelena and Amanda is the impact they have on their fellow wrestlers, both their current teammates and future generations of Cardinals.
Yelena’s career is already an example to hold up to all who will follow her, while Amanda is now an assistant coach and hopes to be an example both on the wall and in the lives of North Central wrestlers every day.
YM: I just want to be remembered and be a role model, someone people can look up to. Someone people can look at and be like ‘oh it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been wrestling, if you work hard for something you’ll achieve it.’
AM: When I was younger I didn’t really have someone that I looked up to from all aspects of life, someone who was just motivated and hardworking and I want to be that person that other girls can look up to. And also, not having those years of experience I want to be that person that shows hard work is what you need. You could be really talented and skilled but if you’re not putting the discipline and effort into it outside, it doesn’t matter. And vice versa if you don’t have that skill and you’re putting that work in you can get there. As long as you keep putting that work in, keep having that faith that what you’re doing is gonna be worth it which I do think it is.
This segment appeared as part of the September 23rd episode of The Red Zone.