High School Sports

Newhalen senior Aileen Lester hopes to add to her already legendary legacy

It is not uncommon for high school athletes to win a state championship in more than one sport if they play for a powerhouse program or dominate in an individual sport.

Standout Aileen Lester of the two-time defending state champion Newhalen Malamutes has succeeded following both those courses — and then some.

The senior has claimed six state titles across three different sports, and what makes the feat all the more impressive is that all of them have come in the last three years.

“She’s definitely a hall-of-famer,” Newhalen head coach James Barthelman said. “A six-time state champion across three sports will be tough to replace.”

As a sophomore, she won her first state title in cross-country running, the second in wrestling — her true passion — and the third in basketball.

“Cross country has always been pretty rough for me because my body just doesn’t like to work, I guess, and I get injured every year,” Lester said. “That year I had a full season where I didn’t get injured.”

She captured her fourth and fifth as a junior by winning back-to-back titles in wrestling and basketball.


“Wrestling is my sport and the one that I love,” Lester said.

Lester won her third consecutive wrestling title at 130 pounds this past December as a senior, and hopes she can do the same in basketball by helping her team run the table this week.

For her first wrestling title, she defeated Dakota Darby, formerly of North Pole, who will be her teammate in college next year at Ottawa University.

Her second state wrestling title came against Ketchikan’s Hayley Gilson, preventing her from becoming a rare four-time state wrestling champion. Lester’s third state title came last semester against Natallie Tobuk, who she considers a friend.

A star in the classroom as well as on the court, Lester took college courses in high school and will be graduating with an Associate of Science degree already in hand.

“My plan is to double major in biology and in sports management so that I can either go into the sports field if I like it or work with animals because that’s my other passion,” she said.

Winning as a team means the most

As much as she enjoyed winning her individual titles, the ones that hold special significance to her are those she won as part of a team for Newhalen, which is nestled on the north side of Iliamna Lake.

“Basketball is a little different because it’s a team, and that one is special because I got to do it in this gym where I got to watch my older sister play,” Lester said.

Her sister’s team won a pair of state titles with their father, Ed Lester, as the head coach. After he became the school’s principal, he had to step back into an assistant coach role but has still be able to coach two more of his daughters to becoming champions as well.

Lester’s younger sister, Pagan, is a freshman and also a starter on the team. The Lesters have another sister who is currently in the seventh grade who will be able to start contributing to the family’s championship legacy starting next year.

“She is much better than I am and is going to fill my spot very nicely,” Lester said of her youngest sister.

They have a competition in the Lester household where they see who can win the most state titles before they graduate. Even though she has a sizable lead, Aileen Lester believes that she can be caught and perhaps even surpassed.

“My younger sister (Pagan) is at one right now but she’s definitely going to pass me by at her rate,” she said.

In addition to being just one of two seniors on this year’s team, Lester is a stalwart leader, which is a role her coaches appreciate and one that she takes tremendous pride in.

“She’s been a great leader, works extremely hard, and is the third coach out there,” Barthelman said.

Lester also sees herself in that role and views her younger and less experienced teammates as her “little ducklings.”

“I’m definitely going to remember (my teammates) and can’t wait to come back and watch them play,” she said.


Unlike most defending state champions, both Barthelman and Lester say that this year’s team isn’t playing under any additional pressure to extend their title streak to three in a row.

“Honestly, we feel the opposite,” Lester said. “We feel no pressure. For every girl on the team except our eighth-graders, when we graduate, we can say we won state. Some of these other girls that we played against can’t say that because there was COVID and then we won the last two.”

“It’s all gravy at this point so we’re just happy to be here,” Barthelman said.

Josh Reed

Josh Reed is a sports reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He's a graduate of West High School and the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.