An Utqiaġvik student who became a state wrestling champion this month hopes to inspire young girls to take up the sport, be more persistent and broaden their definition of femininity.
Manusiu Muti from Barrow High School took first place in her division at the state tournament on Dec. 17, becoming the first athlete from Utqiaġvik to win a state championship in girls wrestling. Muti defeated Alice Bent from West Valley by pin in 2 minutes, 49 seconds.
“I had to take the championship title back home to Barrow and make history and try to encourage other girls in my community to join this amazing sport,” Muti said. “It really helped me grow, both mentally and physically. It gave me confidence and a reason to keep going.”
In the traditionally male-dominated world of wrestling, paving the way for more girls to participate is a great endeavor, said Tela O’Donnell. O’Donnell is a retired American freestyle wrestler, Homer high school wrestling coach, one of the founding board members of Wrestle Like a Girl and a member of the 2004 U.S. Olympic wrestling team.
“To see young female athletes seeing themselves as leaders is so incredible. Once you can see yourself as a leader, the impact that you have on the world around you is just magnified,” O’Donnell said. Muti’s win at state, she added, “will speak loads to her community about what is possible for girls in the world, and what is possible for kids in the world — you know, not just girls, but youth in Utqiaġvik.”
A path to winning
Muti, now a high school junior, lost in the finals at state last year.
Since then, she’s done everything she could to win a state title this year. She said she worked out through the summer, attended every practice, maintained her diet and pushed herself until she couldn’t anymore. Partnering with boys during practice who “wrestled (her) just like another wrestler” also helped her grow.
“I walked into the tournament with confidence, and I was just ready to dominate due to the hard work I’ve been doing off and on the mat,” she said.
Muti continued working hard even after she strained her ankle in October during a volleyball game. Coach Herman Reich said it was hard for the young athlete to stay off the mat and to sit out three weeks and three tournaments, but she was able to come back in full force right afterward.
“As soon as I allowed her to get back on there, she’s just so tough in her mindset, she just toughed it out,” Reich said.
But Muti isn’t just tough, fierce and resilient, said O’Donnell, who got to know her better in spring during a wrestling camp in Palmer.
“She’s such a sweetheart — just like, fun, funny and such a great person to have around,” O’Donnell said. “Sweet and tough. It’s just the best combination.”
Muti picked up wrestling in middle school, inspired by her older brothers. Also a volleyball and basketball player, she said she appreciates wrestling for the mental resilience and discipline it develops.
“You can be dead tired,” she said, “But, if you mentally believe in yourself, and you mentally know that you can push through, your mind is stronger than your body.”
Reich said that over the past four years, he’s loved watching Muti grow as an athlete and as a person, “gaining her confidence in herself.”
“She loses, and she makes the correction, and she gets better,” he said, “just to continue to challenge herself and overcome every obstacle that she gets in her way.”
For Reich, wins aren’t the point of wrestling. Instead, it’s about giving the match 100%.
“Just going out there and giving it all — that’s what she did this year,” he said about Muti. “And that’s what all of them did, actually, the whole team.”
Besides Muti, who competed in the girls’ 235-pound weight class, another Barrow High School athlete won a state wrestling title: Uatahouse Tuifua claimed the top spot this year in the Division II boys’ 285-pound weight class.
Other Barrow High wrestlers who notched successes at state include Benjamin Kaui, who took second in the boys’ 215-pound weight class, placing in the tournament for the first time in the three years he’s competed, and Chunhui Billings, a senior who hasn’t placed until this tournament and took fifth place in the girls’ 165-pound weight class in a tense overtime match that Reich called “the best match of all.”
Billings won regionals, and while she lost her first match at state, she climbed her way up to fifth place. In the final match, she had a tie in two first periods and won in the overtime period.
“By that third period, both wrestlers are exhausted, and she pushed through that, and she got the takedown,” Reich said. “She is the one that really overcame the mindset and believed in herself.”
As an individual sport, wrestling allows no shortcuts and no teammates to blame, Muti said. It’s only you on the mat — and your ability to have a level attitude whether you’re winning or losing, she said. Knowing how to learn from her mistakes and the discipline required for wrestling helped Muti off the mat — for example, in her academic performance, where she’s made significant progress.
After Muti put the same kind of effort into schoolwork that she put into wrestling, she finished last semester with a 4.0 GPA. She is now considering her college opportunities.
“Wrestling has impacted my life in more than one way. It really opened the door for me,” she said. “I didn’t really look at college as something important to me. So, wrestling in college would really push me to continue my education and also do what I love.”
For now, Muti wants to pass down what she learned from the sport to young girls in her community. She plans to attend middle school tournaments to encourage girls to pick up wrestling — a task that can be more challenging in a basketball town like Utqiaġvik.
Reich said that many Utqiaġvik girls sign up for wrestling in middle school, but only a few stick with it in high school. When senior Billings graduates, there will be only one girl wrestling on the high school team, unless more sign up.
It’s common for girls to drop out from sports around puberty, O’Donnell said. Overall, the sport has become more accepting of girls and women in the past 20 years, and the quality of wrestling for girls in Alaska has become much deeper than before, O’Donnell said.
Still, each girl who joins a wrestling team in her community is, in a way, a pioneer and still might be met with encouragement, acceptance, rejection and anything in between, she said.
What could help bring more girls to the sport and encourage them to stick with it, O’Donnell said, is having female coaches and “wrestling moms” addressing the needs of girl athletes, along with having role models.
“Once we start building communities that show successful girls that are cool and interesting and feminine and tough and rugged — in all those ways like Manu — people’s understanding of what it means to be a girl is broadened,” she said.
With her example, Muti said she wants to convey to other girls that being a wrestler, having a strong body frame and showing resilience “doesn’t make you less of a woman.”
“Wrestling helps you mentally and physically, and it gives you confidence,” Muti said. “Being a wrestler and doing what men are doing doesn’t make me less female — it just makes me feel very strong and healthy.”