As a varsity team, Brooks School's wrestling squad doesn't usually give out a "Best Teammate" award, which goes to 2nd- or 3rd-team athletes each season. But this year, coach Pat Hitschler made an exception.
"This person did just an unbelievable job and was fantastic," he said at the Winter Activity Awards ceremony on March 29 in the Frank D. Ashburn Chapel. Not to mention, the student "was the first girls wrestler in Brooks School history to finish a season," he continued. "This award goes to Lily Valerio."
That's right: In her first season wrestling — during which she was also the first female wrestler at Brooks School to win a varsity match — Valerio '19 was honored by her team and recognized by the school community.
"To be the person who does the first of anything is really cool, and especially this because it's 2019 and we had yet to have a girl on the team," she said. "Changing that for Brooks history is kind of quite amazing!"
When the sixth-former joined the wrestling team — that finished third out of 13 teams in the Independent School League (ISL) and won the "most improved award" this season — she was more than ready to blaze a new trail for them. "I like breaking through stereotypes and breaking down walls that should be broken down," she said. "I was like, 'I'm here. I'm doing it.'"
Though she waited until her final year at Brooks to go for it, Valerio had been thinking about wrestling for a while. "I've always wanted to do a contact sport, and I tried to do JV football my first year at Brooks," said the athlete, who didn't end up pursuing a spot on the team and turned instead to soccer and cross-country.
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After her friend and classmate Axidi Iglesias '19 agreed to wrestle on the team with her this winter, the duo became Brooks' first female wrestlers.
"They said they wanted to join the week just before the season began," coach Hitschler recalled. "Less than a week later, everyone's job was to come and move the mats. Not only were Lily and Axidi there before anyone else, every single time the mats needed to be moved after that, they were there. That's when I thought, 'Oh, you're serious about this.'"
Iglesias sought out the team because, she said, "I wanted to combine my love for heavy lifting and working out with a challenging sport."
And though she didn't end up completing the season, Iglesias got a lot out of her experience on the team. "As a person who isn't very physically confrontational, I knew this was going to challenge me mentally and physically, so it was tough," she shared. "But I enjoyed being part of a team that challenges themselves everyday during practice."
Hitschler enjoyed having the duo on the team, too. "Both Lily and Axidi did a great job in practice keeping up with everyone as well as helping out in every way possible," he said.
That's why when the chance arose for Valerio to compete at home, and become the first female wrestler at Brooks in a varsity matchup, the coach gave her the shot.
"Lily had been doing excellent in practice and I knew this would be a great opportunity for her," Hitschler said of the match versus a girl on Milton Academy's team this December, just four competitions into the season. "So I threw Lily into the starting lineup."
Prior to the match, Valerio acknowledged she was facing a special moment. "I'm feeling very empowered . . . and I'm pretty excited because if I win, I'll make Brooks history," she said. "I've asked myself, 'What do I want people to know when I leave school?' and my answer is that I want people to know that I was the first girl wrestler at Brooks to win a match. That's all I want. This whole season, if I just win one match no matter what gender, I'm good."
She got her wish. "Lily went out there and exceeded her expectations," said Hitschler. "She not only won her match, she was also able to pin her opponent. That was a great moment. I'm incredibly proud of her."
Ditto Iglesias, who said, "She's a power machine and seeing her and how she dived into it makes me more motivated to push myself."
Having girls on the wrestling team isn't just motivating to other female athletes interested in the sport, it's a boon to the boys on the team, too. "Obviously, it makes us a more inclusive, involving group," said Hitschler. "One of the big things I wanted to focus on in coming into Brooks was increasing the number of athletes on the team — and if I excluded half the school, that's a disadvantage. Plus, having girls on the team allows our boys to get experience every day wrestling girls so that when another team puts a girl out there, it's not something they're uncomfortable with."
Thanks to Valerio and Iglesias "everyone on the team felt comfortable at least hand fighting with each other," he added. "We'd have our 195-pound captain going up against our 110-pound girl. It's cool."
All this practice certainly served Valerio well in the sixth-annual Girls Wrestling Tournament at Phillips Academy on January 27. She represented Brooks and competed on alongside 54 wrestlers from 29 schools. Valerio finished third out of four, in her 113-pound weight class, once again pushing her boundaries.
"The tournament was very intimidating and empowering at the same time," she admitted, noting most of her opponents had been wrestling for a number of years. "I kept saying, 'A boy would never intimidate me as much these female wrestlers,'" she said. "But I also felt very empowered surrounded by these girls who went against conventional thought about girls wrestling. Seeing them wrestle at such a high level, some of them were nationally ranked, really inspired me. I wish this wasn't the last year I could wrestle."
Yet even if Valerio must move on with her graduation this spring, the impact she's made this season will be felt long after she's gone. "I hope that this is the start of having a full team of females," said coach Hitschler. "I hope that Lily and Axidi being on the team has opened the gates to maybe four or five girls on the team next year, and more after that, to the point that we can wrestle a full team of girls against another team of girls."
Valerio, for one, can see it now. After all, back at the start of the season, she said she remembered her friends' reactions to her taking up wrestling ranged from "Oh my gosh, that's so cool,'" to "Wow, it's almost like I can do it now too."
"You can!'" she said she told them. "It's really being the first and maybe people doing it after you; starting a trend," explained the athlete. "It always takes that one person to start something and then it blossoms."
OTHER RECENT STORIES
Winter Athletics Awards
Achievement and sportsmanship were honored during the school's annual celebration of winter afternoon activities.
Brooks Gives Back, Again!
Students, alumni, family and friends came together to volunteer in five different communities on the same day.
Wow, Brooks boys basketball, girls ice hockey, squash and wrestling teams ended their seasons with inspiring victories — and impressive titles!