CALMAR — One morning removed from becoming Iowa’s first female high school wrestler to reach 100 wins, Felicity Taylor traveled to make an investment in her sport’s future.
The South Winneshiek senior spent Sunday working alongside one of her coaches, Jessica Philippus, as they instructed girls from the Council Bluffs-based Powerhouse Wrestling Club at the Iowa USA state championships in Cedar Rapids.
Among the competitors Taylor helped warm up was Avaeh Smith.
“I just love it,” said Taylor, the nation’s No. 2-ranked high school girls’ wrestler. “She’s nine years old and she has heavy hands and has her shot. I didn’t even know what that was until two years ago. It’s just crazy.”
The Powerhouse girls were excited to see Taylor on the heels of Saturday’s milestone 100th win when she pinned her way to a third consecutive Upper Iowa Conference title. She cherishes her newfound role as an ambassador for girls’ wrestling in Iowa.
“I was afraid to get started and I don’t want girls to feel like that,” said Taylor, who hosted a wrestling camp for girls at South Winn last fall. “It’s nice seeing these little girls look up to me. I’m glad that I’m someone that they can look up to.
“Being there for them, I know it means a lot to them, but I love being there for me, too. I love being around the sport of wrestling. That’s how I want to spend my weekends.”
Taylor’s rise has been rapid.
She’s a former competitive gymnast who entered high school looking for a winter activity to fill the gap between cross country and track season. When Taylor didn’t make the cut for the wrestling cheerleading squad, she thought about trying the sport herself.
South Winneshiek coach Jacob Elsbernd still vividly recalls the day Taylor approached him about joining the program. They agreed that Elsbernd would go talk with the team that night, and she’d go home and talk it over with her parents. The following day, Taylor found herself on the mat, working in a room that included an eventual state qualifier at her weight class.
“She can get really focused on something,” Elsbernd said. “The day she wanted to try wrestling, I was like, ‘OK, is this something you want to do?’ Immediately, you could see that she was all-in. She had a plan. She wasn’t varsity that first year. She had some work to do.”
Taylor, who admits she didn’t even know what the scoring was before entering the sport, recalls watching her brother compete from time to time during weekend youth tournaments and seeing how fun it looked. Similar to cross country and track, she embraced the individual challenge to better herself through competition.
While Taylor’s gymnastics background helps her quickly learn technique, she didn’t find instant success. Her first five matches were losses with three pins.
“Losing just made me so mad,” Taylor said. “I still cry every time I lose just because I hate it.
“I just wanted to get better. Those losses helped a lot because if I would have been winning right away, I probably wouldn’t have worked as hard.”
Taylor’s eyes were opened the summer after her freshman season when she started competing against female wrestlers for the first time, including a trip to Fargo’s freestyle nationals. She also joined the Elite Takedown Club in Waverly — home to some of state’s top prep boys’ wrestlers — and found plenty of support.
“It was intimidating, but they made me feel like it was fine,” Taylor said. “It’s cool that they took me in. Even though I was bad at first, they didn’t judge me. It was nice because a lot of guys wouldn’t do that.”
Taylor entered her sophomore season a much-improved wrestler and continued to build on that success by accumulating a total of 69 wins through her junior campaign.
This past offseason, Taylor continued to make a name for herself at the national level, losing only to the top-ranked girl in her weight class in the finals of the folkstyle national tournament in Oklahoma before suffering a loss in the quarterfinals of Fargo’s freestyle nationals to the same girl and placing fifth. She also had an opportunity to compete in high school showcases, including an event at UNI’s West Gym and the Night of Conflict at Carver-Hawkeye Arena where world silver medalist Alli Ragan served as her coach.
“The last two seasons she got to the point where she was beating the majority of the kids, but we still weren’t necessarily in matches with some top-ranked kids,” Elsbernd said. “That was understandable — she just started as a freshman.
“This year it’s been a little bit different story. We’re competing, every one of her losses has been to a top 10-ranked opponent, and we’ve been in a majority of those matches.”
As is typical throughout Northeast Iowa, Taylor’s road to state is daunting. She has defeated everyone in her sectional, but faces potential district roadblocks in No. 6 Brooks Meyer of Denver and No. 8 Brock Dietz of Nashua-Plainfield. They have each defeated Taylor twice, with three of those setbacks coming by decisions of four points or less.
Taylor realizes if she can find a path to state, she’s talented enough to earn a spot on the podium. Cedar Falls’ Cassy Herkelman and Megan Black of Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont are the only Iowa females to reach state, with Black the lone placewinner.
“I’ve been putting in a lot of work,” Taylor said. “I know I have to close the gap even more if I want to be at state. ... Who doesn’t want to be at the state tournament? They’re all going to turn it up when it comes time for districts. Hopefully, work pays off. I’m excited to see where I stand.”
Beyond high school wrestling, Taylor has decided she’ll compete for a women’s program at the collegiate level. Regardless of how this season ends, she’s already raised the bar for girls within one of Iowa’s most treasured sports.
“One of my goals this year was to make sure I get 100 wins because it’s something that hasn’t been done for girls in the state,” Taylor said. “I want to show that if you work for something, it’s there, you can get it.”