WRESTLING: Former Denver East athlete Maya Nelson intent on winning Olympic title.
The Denver Post
To realize her potential as a wrestler, Maya Nelson knew she needed to immerse herself in the sport.
So in January, the 2015 Denver East High School graduate who became the first girl to advance to the quarterfinals of Colorado’s state wrestling tournament, moved from Montbello to Colorado Springs in order to wrestle full-time at the U.S. Olympic Training Center.
The migration southward paid off in a big way last week when, on Friday, Nelson won freestyle gold at the Junior World Championships in Tampere, Finland, in the 139-pound weight class to become the country’s first Junior World winner since 2010.
“Moving has been the best thing I’ve done for my career,” Nelson said in a phone interview. “I’ve been wrestling people like Becka Leathers, who’s on the Senior World Team, and people like Amanda Hendey, who’s been on several na- tional teams. I’ve been in a room with heavy hitters who are still training for senior world titles. It’s a great environment to be around.”
In a U.S. wrestling system where the Cadet and Junior teams are often seen as the stockpile for future national team stars, Nelson’s latest achievement puts her goal of making the 2020 Olympic team within reach.
“A Junior World Championship is a great steppingstone to becoming an Olympic champion,” Nelson said. “Now, it’s about continuing to work hard in practice — even if I’m getting one percent better every day, that is going to add up to a spot on the team and, hopefully, that Olympic title.”
And in the bruising, oxygen-deprived moments against her American counterparts at the training center, Nelson said she constantly harkens back to her days at Denver East, a time in which she noted a main motivation was to “prove that she could compete against boys turning into men” en route to becoming a two-time state qualifier.
“Wrestling boys made me face a lot of adversity, which helped my wrestling tremendously,” she said. “I knew I couldn’t outmuscle these guys and that I had to use my technique and speed. All of that goes into the way I wrestle now.”
Maya Nelson, a 2015 Denver East High School graduate, celebrates her Junior World Championship victory over Bulgaria’s Yuliana Yaneva on Friday in Finland.