Abi Gontarek doesn’t consider herself a pioneer. But who has done more to turn the high school wrestling mat into a pedestal for girls in Montana?
The glow from the fifth-place medal Gontarek won at the state tournament nine days ago at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark reflects a special kind of shine — critics be damned.
“Since the beginning all I’ve wanted to do was wrestle for myself,” said Gontarek, a 98-pounder from Laurel who became the first girl in Montana history to place at state. “The medal isn’t to prove to anybody that I could do it or to be the first girl to place at state. It’s for me to show myself that I did something amazing.”
In a testosterone-dominated sport, the reality of girls in high school wrestling is taboo. Traditions are sacred. And when Gontarek decided she wanted to join Laurel’s team it was met with resistance from within.
Gontarek said she had the full backing of coach Ted Hill and his assistants, though it took her time to find the gumption to set the wheels in motion and join the team. Gontarek said she suffers from attention deficit and obsessive compulsive disorders, as well as anxiety. It crippled her.
“Two or three years ago I could never approach somebody and ask them a question,” she said. “When I finally decided that I wanted to wrestle I wrote a note to coach Hill, front and back pages, saying why I wanted to be a wrestler and why I should be allowed to wrestle. When he came up to me and started talking to me about it I busted into tears. I was so nervous.”
Hill welcomed Gontarek. She was in. But that was half the battle. Gontarek now had to win the hearts and minds of skeptical teammates, classmates … the school as a whole. And adolescence can be a cruel, cold world.
“My first year was tough,” Gontarek said. “(Laurel) had won the state championship two years before, and then the next year they were a couple points away from getting another one. And then all of the sudden they had this girl on the team, and they didn’t like it.
“I cried a lot. Walking through school I’d get dirty looks. People would make comments. The girlfriends of the guys on the team would make up rumors about me. But the better I started doing the more respect I got from the guys. And towards the end it got better. And then this year I had finally earned their respect.”
Said Hill: “It was a battle for her. Every practice was a battle. It was hard. She just got better all the way around. She got stronger physically and tougher mentally in terms of, ‘Hey I can do this just like everybody else can.’ And in terms of wrestling she got a lot better. Several times at the state tournament she was tough enough to hold up when the going got difficult.”
Gontarek won three matches in the 98-pound weight class at the state tourney. She earned a 10-8 decision over Belgrade’s Brandon Rockwell in the first round, a 7-4 victory over Stevensville’s Noah Brown in the consolation bracket, and a 6-4 win against Columbia Falls’ Manny Guzman to win fifth place.
She’d come so far in such a short amount of time. But perhaps the only person not surprised was Gontarek herself.
“It took me a long time to finally earn respect as a wrestler, and not as a girl wrestler,” she said. “That’s what I tried so hard to work on, keeping a low profile being a girl. It took a long time for the refs and other coaches to finally catch on.”
Has Gontarek gotten everyone’s attention? Has she moved enough mountains? Has she busted the door wide open for other girls who aspire to wrestle?
“I think it’d be cool if somebody else is able to place, and place higher than I did,” Gontarek said. “I wish them the best. I hope that they have a good team like I did. I could not have done it this year without my team. Not all girls are going to be as lucky to have a team like that.”