As she wiped away the tears and emerged from the bathroom, her friends and coaches reminded her that she had just made history — and that with her senior season ahead, she still had time to impress college recruiters and earn a scholarship to wrestle at the next level.
“I came to terms: That wasn’t going to be the reason why I stopped wrestling,” she said.
But now, nine months later and with her senior season postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic, the reason she might stop wrestling is out of her hands.
Her historic appearance in March may have been her last. Her life now vacillates between remote classes and shifts as a server at a restaurant. In between are push-up and sit-up sessions in her bedroom, anything to keep her in shape for when Baltimore County might open the season again after delaying the original start date from November to December — and then, after another surge in virus cases, to February, when the hope is for wrestlers to have a six-week schedule.
“I’m preparing for this season … and I’m really hoping for a chance to show some coaches who are willing to give me that opportunity, who are willing to see me wrestle,” Tejan-Cole said.
The pandemic has left the careers of thousands of high school athletes in flux, especially those who were banking on the exposure of this season to earn college scholarships. While some top athletes are still able to weigh offers and sign with schools, late bloomers such as Tejan-Cole are missing the opportunity to impress scouts during a final season of eligibility.
It is already a long shot to earn a college scholarship in women’s wrestling, which is not considered an NCAA championship-level sport but has more than 30 schools sponsoring teams. Most college wrestling programs only give partial scholarships but can help recruits find other financial aid.
Tejan-Cole has held on to the dream of becoming one of those recruits, but with each passing day without wrestling, she wonders whether she will get the chance.
“How I grew up in my family — we’re not the richest. We had to go through a lot. Everything we got, we had to work for it really, really hard,” she said. “I want to make my whole family proud and be the best.”
‘There are limited options to begin with’
Tejan-Cole was bullied in elementary and middle school, she said, because she was bigger than most kids, and she would often hear jokes about her weight.
“Growing up, I always had to fight for myself,” she said, and as she battled low self-esteem and developed anger issues, she struggled in school and had little direction.
As Tejan-Cole reached ninth grade at Milford Mill, the school’s principal, Kyria Joseph, worried that her anger would consume her if she didn’t learn to control and channel it. The principal suggested she join the wrestling team, which was predominantly composed of boys.
“I’m a former athlete … so I always try to encourage girls to go out and use [sports] as a way to pay for college. That’s what I did,” Joseph said. “She would get upset with things. And I said, ‘Okay, use athletics as a way to channel that; use that energy as a positive thing and make it work for you.’ … She always wanted to go to college.”
When Tejan-Cole joined the wrestling team, she had little idea how many other girls across the country were doing the same. Girls’ wrestling grew from 5,527 high school participants in 2007-08 to 21,124 in 2018-19, and earlier this year the NCAA added women’s wrestling to its Emerging Sports for Women program.
Before the pandemic, Tejan-Cole believed she was helping grow the sport — but her coaches have worried that the shutdown will stunt the growth that the sport enjoyed across the region over the past several years.
“It’s really going to impact girls’ wrestling. And people don’t really see it, because it’s such a new sport,” Milford Mill wrestling coach Ken Berlett said. “They’ve basically had one season of exposure, especially girls like in Beauty’s situation that are seniors. … She would probably be one of those top 20 girls in the country right now, heavyweight ranked, but she just hasn’t had that exposure. … There are limited options to begin with at the NCAA level.”
Maryland has produced some of the country’s top wrestlers. Arundel’s Nicole Woody became the first girl to reach the state finals in 2007, and she went on to become an Olympic trials qualifier. In 2016, former Magruder standout Helen Maroulis became the first American woman to win Olympic gold in wrestling during the Rio de Janeiro Games. In 2018, Mount Hebron’s Cassy Lopez became the first girl to sign a national letter-of-intent and earn a scholarship to wrestle at a Division I school, joining the newly formed team at Presbyterian College in South Carolina.
By then, Maryland officials eyed further growth in the state, and in 2019, Maryland became the 16th state to approve a girls’ tournament. The setup called for girls — more than 100 in all, up from 75 two seasons earlier — to wrestle alongside boys during the regular season with the option to enter the girls’ regional tournament if they met qualifications.
The inaugural state tournament was held just days before the pandemic began in March at Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro, and it was an opportunity for Tejan-Cole to make an impression on college recruiters against the top heavyweights from across the state.
“I remember it like yesterday. It was my first time being at states, seeing that many people. All the people were so interested in seeing females wrestle, not just the boys,” she said. “The boys were excited to see females wrestle.”
‘Nothing is stopping me’
To wrestle in college would be the steppingstone Tejan-Cole believes she needs to accomplish her ultimate goal of becoming a professional mixed martial arts fighter, and it would continue to give her an outlet to deal with her anger issues.
Tejan-Cole’s natural strength and low center of gravity helped her immediately fit in on the mat, but she still needed to learn the intricacies of the sport, especially as a heavyweight.
At first, she could feel others judging her weight every time she appeared in her singlet for a match. She would cry before matches because of nerves. “She was a shy girl, looking to fit in,” Berlett said. “She found wrestling as an outlet.”
“If I didn’t find wrestling and be physical and learn to take on my anger and control it the way I did with wrestling,” Tejan-Cole said, “it would be really bad right now.”
Day by day, she made a deal with herself: Simply show up and improve little by little at technique. She learned to control her breathing and push through brutal workouts. The first time she pinned a boy on the junior varsity team as a freshman, her confidence surged. She felt more in control of her anger, and her emotions became easier to handle.
“She makes a great spokesperson, to kind of talk about how this shaped who she is becoming, as a stronger person, especially with the bullying, the body-shaming that sometimes happens — especially when you’re a Black woman,” Joseph said. “I’m a Black woman. I’m taller and bigger, and so people automatically think, ‘Oh, you’re going to be aggressive.’ And that is not who she is. She has a very gentle spirit. There’s sometimes those negative perceptions that will occur.”
By the time she was a junior, she had achieved a record of 10-3 — with four wins against boys and six against girls — and although she lost in the state final, she was overwhelmed the day of the match by how many people had packed the arena in support.
That’s her lasting memory of that day in March — not the loss or pain in the bathroom stall after. She thinks about it every day as she juggles her time with remote learning, personal workout sessions and her new job at Buffalo Wild Wings in Owings Mills, which has replaced the hours she would be spending at wrestling practice this winter.
Joseph visited Tejan-Cole at the restaurant this fall, and they talked about her future — and she came away from the conversation even more determined not to give up her dreams of wrestling in college.
“I’m on my grind,” Tejan-Cole said. “The more motivation I get, no matter what the situation is during this pandemic, nothing is stopping me.”