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Bethesda-Chevy Chase's Carla Amaya takes to wrestling mat with support of her parents

By James Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 12, 2011; 12:07 AM

It wasn't truly a "no." Patricia Amaya's response during dinner one night in late 2008 was more of a knee-jerk reaction.

Amaya wanted to be supportive of her youngest daughter, Carla, but in her native Colombia girls didn't play sports, let alone one as aggressive as wrestling. Carla's father, Carlos, who was born in El Salvador, was concerned about his daughter getting hurt.

By the looks of it, though, Carla, at the time a sophomore at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, was serious about trying out for the team.

"Mamita, but that's not a sport for women," Patricia recalled telling her daughter.

"No, mami, you have to have an open mind," Carla replied.

It was at a public school in Hyattsville that Patricia, after moving there as a teenager from Colombia, played her first sport. She wasn't about to deny her daughter the opportunity to try another one, even if she had doubts about how long she would last and what people may think.

So the Amayas relented, throwing their support behind their daughter that night.

Carla's journey from novice to three-year veteran of the B-CC wrestling team featured bruised cheeks, nasty contusions and moments of frustration. But her parents also watched her grow into a stronger, more disciplined and confident young woman. And through her, they gained a deeper understanding of their adopted country's culture, and the potential it holds for their children.

"When you live here, you learn," Patricia, 52, said in Spanish. "The culture teaches you. If I were in Colombia, I wouldn't let Carla wrestle. But now, perspectives change. Now I want my grandson to play football. And my granddaughter is going to play soccer."

For Patricia, sports back home were for the rich - and rarely for women. When she first saw women playing soccer when she moved to Maryland at 16 with her uncle, she couldn't believe it. Soon, however, she was playing softball, while finishing high school at Northwestern.

"I've matured," she said. "I've had daughters here, born here, which is very different. And American culture is different. You have plenty of opportunity. Look at the school and how many sports are available. In Colombia, there isn't that."

Growing up in El Salvador before moving to the United States at 20, Carla's father Carlos was accustomed to active girls. He played baseball with some in middle school and even had a few female cousins that were good at the game.

"But with wrestling, it seemed a little more delicate," Carlos, 56, said. "It seemed riskier and I always had that fear that something worse would happen. Now I have more confidence in [Carla] because she's stronger and she knows how to defend herself better."

Carla's uphill battle

At barely 5 feet 4 and 130 pounds, Carla, 17, often faced wrestlers taller, stronger or more experienced than her.

In the beginning, she was raw, with only the handful of basic moves she had learned from the two senior girls on the team that convinced her to try out. She was very timid and passive.

Because there is only one wrestler for each 14 varsity weight classes, she has largely wrestled against junior varsity opponents her three seasons. But she stuck with it, to the point that she won a few matches this season and her coaches noticed her developing some moxie on the mat.

"If there is one kid you can count on in that [wrestling room] to never make excuses and not push themselves to the limit, it's Carla," said B-CC assistant wrestling coach Josh Singer. He convinced Patricia to allow Carla back onto the team this season after she made her daughter briefly quit following a tough scrimmage in which Carla came home in tears, with a bruised cheek and bloody nose.

Fourteen percent of B-CC's 1,800 students are Hispanic; Carla is one of only a few Hispanics on her softball and wrestling teams.

The bootstraps mentality that has carried her father through two blue-collar jobs and mother through her own work as a babysitter seeped into Carla's personality. As immigrants without college degrees, Carlos and Patricia have pushed their children to achieve.

Though the family lives in Rockville, Carla transferred into the B-CC district for elementary school and stayed there, blossoming into a top student with plans of studying architecture in college after she graduates this spring.

Patricia's flexible hours at work allowed her to support Carla and her older sister in academics and sports. When they were younger, Carlos would read to his daughters in Spanish on his days off, wanting them to be intelligent and proficient in multiple languages.

"It's a great feeling knowing that my daughter is growing up and maturing," said Carlos, who works both at a hotel and a grocery store, as he has for the past 10 years. "Because what I feel we couldn't do, she has done."

Carla's parents grew to embrace her budding love of wrestling as well.

Carlos, a longtime professional wrestling fan, took her to her weekends meets, cheering and watching intently from the stands. Patricia supported Carla during the week, picking her up from practices and meets.

When Carla would come home covered in bruises, Patricia would always have an ice pack ready in addition to cream to soothe the particularly troublesome spots.

"My mom tends to be really open minded when it comes to stuff," Carla said. "I think it's because her childhood wasn't as open to everything she wants me to experience more things."

An emotional exit

Carlos and Patricia took time off work to attend her final home meet last week. They arrived more than an hour early for senior night, standing quietly outside the gym's main entrance. (Patricia would return to the hallway for most of Carla's match, refusing to watch, as she has for the past three years.)

Just before the meet against Damascus High School began, the seniors huddled outside the side entrance of the gym with a white rose each to present to their parents in front of their teammates and fans. Carla, who will wrestle for the final time Saturday in a junior varsity playoff tournament at Gaithersburg High School, was the last one recognized, hugging both parents and handing the flower to her mother.

It was a tearless moment but one that was nonetheless emotional. As she walked back to her seat in the stands, Patricia sported a broad grin and showed off her rose.

"It was a reward for all the work," she said afterward, a palpable sense of pride in her voice. "The sacrifices that we've made. In that moment, we understood that it hasn't all been in vain.

"Carla always wanted to get to the end."

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