Maya Nelson heard the negative whispers when she was a Denver East wrestling standout competing against boys in high school.
In 2014, she became the first girl from a larger school to qualify for the state tournament. Even then, some felt she did not belong on the mat against boys, even though she entered the 2015 tournament with a 31-5 record.
“It’s very hard being a woman in a male-dominated sport, especially growing up,” said Nelson, who looked up to world champion Adeline Gray, who wrestled for Bear Creek High School. “My parents were really good at keeping the negativity away so I didn’t really see people disapproving of what I was doing until I was in high school.
“I felt I had to work five times as hard as anyone else. I was breaking boundaries that needed to be broken and doing things some say women don’t do. I also had to earn people’s respect. It definitely developed my character. My mentality is definitely stronger for it.”
That experience has helped the 139-pounder prepare for the U.S. World Team Trials at South Point Arena in Las Vegas. The 2016 junior worlds bronze medalist will vie for her first spot on the U.S. senior worlds team Friday with a berth in Paris in late August at stake.
And while her high school experience may have shaped her character, she realized she needed to further dedicate herself to the sport.
Nelson left University of the Cumberlands (Ky.) and entered the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center in January. She went from being the best in the NAIA school’s training room to just another wrestler. That was good.
“The first week I was here, I was getting my butt kicked,” she said. “But it couldn’t have come at a better moment. The training made a real difference and so did the environment. Surrounding yourself with people who want the same things you do, who want to work as hard as you do and I like not being the best in the room. I want to be pushed.”
The move and that attitude has proved beneficial, women’s national team coach Terry Steiner said.
“A lot of it is just feeling and understanding you do belong,” he said. “For her, we know she has talent. Earlier she was hoping to compete at this level. Now she expects to.”
The 19-year-old benefits from being closer to home with continuing support from her parents, she said.
It’s no coincidence she upset world junior champion Ayana Gempei of Japan in the Dave Schultz tournament semifinals two weeks after her arrival. Although she lost in the finals, that experience reminded the online business communications major that she belonged, despite any naysayers.
“I wanted everyone see that this is a woman who is passionate about wrestling,” she said. “That’s what I want to show every time on the mat. You can dominate and be beautiful and strong.”