Making history is something that former Chandler High School and Sunkist Kids club wrestler Stefana Jelacic had already accomplished. In 2019, she was marked down in the record books as the first-ever girl’s 118-pound champion in the state of Arizona after dominating the competition to reach the top of the podium.
In the fall, however, Jelacic will be a pioneer of sorts once again when she begins her first semester of college at Lourdes University on a wrestling scholarship. She will be a member of the school’s inaugural women’s wrestling program, as a growing number of schools across the country are adding the sport.
“I think it’s great that women’s wrestling is finally getting recognized by the NCAA schools,” Jelacic said.
Currently, the schools beginning to add women’s wrestling are smaller DII and DIII schools. The hope is that DI schools will eventually follow suit.
“If there are Division I schools that are willing to open the doors to women wrestlers, the sport would grow tremendously,” Jelacic said. “There would be more women wrestlers around the country.”
For a number of girls like Jelacic, their wrestling journey begins from a young age, devoting hours of time towards training and preparing to compete. They make the same amount of sacrifices as their male peers in the sport, and many have encountered some sort of gender-based discrimination at least once about their decision to participate in wrestling.
But despite all of their hard work they put into the sport, the opportunities for females have long been much slimmer than that of males. It’s examples like these that make the recognition of women’s wrestling by smaller NCAA colleges that much more significant.
For Jelacic, her wrestling career began when she was in middle school, stemming from her childhood participation in Judo. One of her coaches over at Sunkist, Brian Brady, said her former Judo experience helped with her transition into wrestling.
“She was a national judo champion,” Brady said. “So, when I started with her she was not completely raw, she understood the grappling aspect of it. She was a tough girl, real hard nose. She was easy to work with, all I needed to do was get her in wrestling shape and teach her wrestling technique.”
When she first began wrestling, she was one of the few young girls who were participating in the sport at the time. Now, many other girls like Jelacic are beginning to see a plethora of additional opportunities become available to them that previously were just a dream.
“When I first started wrestling there were barely any girls that I saw. I would always go to boys tournaments and maybe see 1 or 2 other girls,” Jelacic said. “But as I kept on wrestling, I would see that more girls started to come to practices and tournaments, and now in high school there is girls wrestling as its own sport.”
The recognition and respect females are finally starting to get when they step on the mat is something that the wrestling community is thrilled about. Not only does it show growth in a once-dwindling sport, it also is helping to create a number of additional opportunities on a more level playing field.
As well as creating more competition, it also opens up the door to possibilities of other avenues for athletes to explore such as Mixed Martial Arts, where the female fight scene has exploded in recent years.
“Everyone says it is a male dominated sport and even though there are more guys than girl wrestlers, wrestling is a sport for anyone,” Jelacic said.
It is something that the Tricia Saunders High School Excellence award will hopefully help to emphasize. It’s given annually to a high school senior based on their wrestling success, academic achievement and commitment to community service. The award not only recognizes the top wrestler in each state, but also names one national winner from all of the state finalists. This year, Jelacic won the award for the state of Arizona.
“I’m very humbled to be given this award for the state, especially because Tricia Saunders is such an inspiration to me and has coached me at high level tournaments like world team trials and Olympic team trials,” Jelacic said.
Her wrestling coach at Chandler High School, Vidal Mejia, says Jelacic embodies the very aspect the award is meant to highlight.
“She serves as a role model for the younger girls who want to achieve what she has,” Vidal said. “Also, Stefana has always had national and international aspirations. We often tell our athletes that if you are working towards those types of goals the local and state titles will take care of themselves. She does the work to achieve those goals.”
Saunders has served as Jelacic’s inspiration since the beginning. When Jelacic first started wrestling, she looked up who were the pioneers of the women’s wrestling movement, which was when she discovered Tricia Sunders.
“I saw that she wrestled for Sunkist Kids, the same club I wrestle for, and all her accomplishments, and I wanted to make history just like her,” Jelacic said.
It’s a relationship Jelacic’s other wrestling coach Max Mejia says has been both influential and beneficial from the start.
“Tricia lives in Arizona. She would come in and mentor Stefana throughout the years. Stefana learned from the best,” Max said.
Currently, Jelacic is preparing to make the move to Ohio and is still training every day to be the best she can be. Her goals didn’t stop at just being awarded a college scholarship; she also wants to win a national title while wrestling for Lourdes.