Middle school girl shines in sport dominated by boys

She notices the looks. How could she not?

Not many youth wrestlers, or their parents for that matter, are used to seeing a girl walk out on the mat to compete against boys.

They stare. Or do double-takes as she warms up before a match. But those long, skeptical glances never seem to bother 11-year-old Zoë Castaneda.

"I'm used to that," she said. "But it usually goes away once they see me wrestle. I'm trying to wrestle out there for respect. So they don't think of me as a girl wrestler, but just a wrestler."

Said her father, and part-time coach, Frank: "We have encountered some interesting feedback from some wrestlers and parents about our decision to allow her to compete against boys. The beauty of the sport is that most of the questions can be answered on the mat.

"Once they see that she can hold her own everything works out."

Zoë does more than hold her own. She holds a number of titles as well.

This is just a partial list of her accomplishments since she started wrestling four years ago:

• Two-time Girls Festival Champion at Southeast Regionals

• Fourth in Greco-Roman and Freestyle at Southeast Regionals in 2005

• Oconee River Rumble champion

• South Georgia Championships champion in 2006

• Second place at Missouri Valley Women's Showcase

• Freestyle state champ in 2004

• Second place at state freestyle in 2006

• 2006 USA Wrestling Girls Freestyle national champion

Some of these high finishes were in girls tournaments. And some were in boys tournaments. It turns out Zoë doesn't discriminate - she's tough against everyone.

"There are people out there that have a problem with her wrestling their kids," said one of her many coaches, Brandon Bentley. "Because she's so good. It's hard to keep anyone in wrestling anyway, and when someone gets introduced to the sport and then loses to a girl, it doesn't bode too well for them."

Zoë began wrestling at the age of 7 when her younger brother Ethan began competing in the sport as a 6-year-old. It didn't take her long to get hooked.

"That February there was a (United States Girls Wrestling Association) state tournament at Riverwood High School and we decided to enter her in the tournament," Frank said. "She placed second and after that the rest was history."

But the question becomes: What is Zoë's future in the sport?

There are no girls high school wrestling teams in Georgia, so when the rising sixth-grader gets to high school in three years, what will be her options? Will she be good enough, or strong enough, to compete against varsity boys?

She holds her own with the opposite gender right now, but three years is a long way away.

"It's all up to Zoë and how she grows," said Bentley, a former state champion at Parkview and current coach at the Parkview Wrestling Club. "She could be a big 103 (-pounder). Females hold their weight differently with muscle mass, so she could be a big 103 or even a 112.

"I definitely think she'll be a part of the wrestling program, regardless if it's varsity or JV. She just loves the sport."

Said Zoë: "I'm going to keep loving the sport. I'm always going to be involved in it. Once I get older, it's going to be hard for me to compete against boys, so I'm still trying to think of what I'm going to do with that. But I want to stay involved.

"There are not many girl wrestlers in Georgia, so instead I might just have to go to national tournaments."

The sport of women's wrestling did take a huge leap in 2004 when it was introduced as an Olympic event. So even though Zoë might not compete for her high school wrestling team, she has her sights set on a possible trip to the Olympic Games when she gets older.

"I want to try to wrestle in high school and college, but not a lot of colleges have girls wrestling," she said. "But I still want to try for the Olympic team and the World Team. I just have a lot of goals."

According to Bentley, these aren't unrealistic ones.

"She is very good," he said. "She is so technically sound ... She is extremely confident when she gets to wrestle other girls, and I definitely see that being one of her long-term goals."

Zoë not only trains with Bentley at Parkview, she also works with Dustin Kawa and Francois McDaniel at The Wrestling Academy and with the Team Georgia national squad. On top of that, she trains at home with her father and two younger brothers on their mat in the family's garage.

It seems evident that Zoë has become practically addicted to wrestling, even though it is arguably the most physically demanding sport available for kids.

But despite her dedication and accolades, it's not all she's interested in. According to her mother, Mercedes, Zoë is a straight-A student and will be playing the violin in the Sweetwater Middle orchestra next year.

So it turns out she's just your typical wrestler/violinist/ honor roll student.

Nothing out of the ordinary there.

Then again, being a one of a kind is nothing new for Zoë Castaneda.

"It's awesome when people come up to me and say how good I did," she said, "and I don't hear how I did good for a girl. It makes me feel good and it makes me think I'm another step closer to my goal."