A buzzing crowd quickly gathers in the gym to watch a 14-year-old wrestler. As the electric atmosphere turns from oohs and aahs to cheers, the referee raises the arm of the winner and everyone goes wild.
Of course they do, the girl just beat another boy.
Meet Cristelle Rodriguez, the wrestling wonderkind that is taking on all comers, a trend-setter that’s making a name for herself locally, nationally and yes, globally.
She’s known as “The Princess of Red Wave” and it’s easy to see why.
On Saturday, Oct. 13 at the California World Challenge at Clovis West, an event that attracts over 900 wrestlers, she wrestled in the boys division and went 5-1, placing third after losing her first match. The next day, she breezed through the girls division and won her final match by points.
“I get excited and nervous at the same time,” she said after the Saturday event. “I have to use my technique to wrestle the boys because they are stronger, but my mind is the same when I wrestle girls.”
The 101-pound freshman will be the first female wrestler in Buchanan school history and joins not only the top program in the state but one of the best in the nation. Buchanan’s resume boasts three straight CIF State Wrestling Championships and a No. 6 national ranking in 2018.
She will practice with the boys team all season with coach Troy Tirapelle, a three-time CIF state champion at Clovis High from 2002-04 who attended the University of Illinois. Tirapelle promises to coach her up like he would do any wrestler.
“It’s good that the coaches don’t say, ‘Oh we have a girl here guys, let’s take it easy,’” Rodriguez says. “I take that as a compliment. I don’t like when they put me down and say, ‘You’re a girl you can’t do this.’ I like that coach Tirapelle puts me up with the boys.”
So, how exactly will the upcoming wrestling season work for Rodriguez? Well, it can be a bit tricky since no Clovis Unified high school fields a girls wrestling program. Rodriguez’s family (dad Saul and mom Jerri) along with Tirapelle are still learning and constantly discussing what the season will look like for her. However, this much is clear – she’ll wrestle with the boys team when there isn’t a marquee girls tournament that’s needed for her rankings or seedings, and when she qualifies she will participate in the 2019 CIF Girls State Wrestling Championships held at Rabobank Arena in Bakersfield on Feb. 21-23, 2019.
Rodriguez started wrestling at the age of nine, somewhat of a late start for someone so accomplished, and her list of wins and medals are numerous. According to Trackwrestling, she has won 28 events since 2013 including the Pan American Championship in Mexico on Sept. 14, a tournament where she did not concede a point. Another of her greatest accomplishments was winning the 2018 Women’s National Wrestling title in the Schoolgirl Division.
At the end of October through a special invitation, Rodriguez and her father, Saul, are traveling to Japan with the Cadet team, the highest rated wrestling division in the U.S.
Soft-spoken but obviously a force to be reckoned with on the mat, Rodriguez has lofty goals: “I want to be a four-time California state wrestling champion. From there after high school I want to go to King University in Tennessee and then go on to the Olympics.”
Why King University you might ask? Well, they are the premier women’s college wrestling program in the nation with four consecutive national titles and 14 individual WCWA national champions.
Girls wrestling is booming in the Central Valley. Case in point: think of Selma winning the last three state titles, led by two four-time individual champs in Gracie Figueroa (121) and Alledia Martinez (111), both who graduated in 2018.
While Figueroa, who went 193-0 in her high school career, is certainly one of the most decorated female wrestlers in the history of the sport, people often wonder if Rodriguez is going to be the next Gracie Figueroa.
Rodriguez’s response: “No, I want to be the first Cristelle.”
The Rodriguez family, including mom Jerri, are very involved in the wrestling community (12-year-old Jarius is ranked No. 3 on the west coast and 5-year-old Brody wrestled over 100 matches last year) and are pleased with the hard-nosed coaching that will come with practicing with the Buchanan boys wrestling program.
Her workout routine is rigorous; during the weekdays (sometimes getting Fridays off) she practices from 3-5 p.m. at school and 6-9 p.m. in the evening, still maintaining straight A’s. She also wrestles for Red Wave Wrestling, a program her father helped start four years ago along with Sergio Montoya and Damani Buckley.
“We have had several parents come up to us and say that their daughter is wrestling just because of our daughter,” Saul Rodriguez says. “Little girls come up to her and ask to get a picture with her.”
In fact, while talking to Cristelle and her father after her Saturday afternoon performance at Clovis West, a young male fan came up to her and declared: “I saw you wrestle and you wrestle really good.”
For someone so young Cristelle Rodriguez is mature beyond her age, relishing in the opportunity to help grow her sport and taking pride in knowing she possesses so much influence on the next generation of girl wrestlers.
“I like to be a role model for young girls so they can get into wrestling and not be afraid of it,” Cristelle Rodriguez says with a smile.
The future of girls wrestling is certainly in good hands.