Lily Cortes tried her hand at a bunch of different sports over the years, including water polo, swimming, cheerleading, cross-country and track, but none of them held her interest.
Then she discovered wrestling.
A year after that, new Riverside-Brookfield High School wrestling coach Mike Boyd discovered Cortes. The rest has been history in the making.
Cortes, a junior, recently became the first girl in RBHS history to win a varsity wrestling match. Just three months after transferring to RBHS from Morton West, she earned the starting spot at 106 pounds and is fast proving she is no flash in the pan. She has compiled an 8-10 record, with three of the wins coming by pin.
“[The first victory] was nice because when I [started wrestling at Morton] I didn’t win anything,” Cortes said. “I was like, ‘maybe I shouldn’t do it next year,’ but then I was like, ‘no, I’m going to go.’
“After I got my first win I proved to everybody that I deserved to be [in the lineup]. I’m not just this girl that’s around guys. I have a purpose here.”
Cortes got her first taste of wrestling as a freshman when the Morton coach asked her if she wanted to be a team manager. She said yes and after a while started participating in practices.
Last season she made the Morton team but didn’t win a match. She was at a Relentless Pursuit camp at Oak Park and River Forest High School last summer when Boyd, who had just taken the RBHS job, noticed her.
“I usually only work with the top kids, but I saw she was working with one kid who was from RB, so I went over there and introduced myself,” Boyd recalled. “I saw how hard she was working. She wasn’t very talented but just very relentless.”
Impressed with her work ethic, Boyd invited Cortes to a similar camp two weeks later at RBHS, but Cortes told him she couldn’t afford it.
“So I asked her how she could afford the Oak Park camp, which was $50 more,” Boyd said. “She told me, ‘Coach, I snuck into the Oak Park camp. I want to wrestle the best and get better.’ So I told her she could come for free.”
Her experience at the camp prompted Cortes to ask if she could attend RBHS, not realizing that she had to live in the district. So Cortes and her family moved in August, and Cortes immediately started off-season workouts with the Bulldogs.
Cortes beat out two boys to earn her spot at 106, which didn’t sit well at first.
“We have a couple freshmen 106-pounders who are pretty good, but I don’t want to throw them into the fire yet because I don’t know if they’re mentally ready for it,” Boyd said. “It’s hard for me to say that to them because they’re like, ‘I’m not mentally ready for it but this girl is mentally ready for it?’ I told them, yeah, she’s put her time in [over] three months of the preseason, she’s done every workout, every run, she’s never missed a practice. She’s 100 percent bought in.”
Cortes knew she would have to prove herself but has enjoyed every minute with her new team.
“I love it so much,” Cortes said. “The coach is great. The team is like a family. Our team bonding is great. We go bike riding. It’s awesome.”
Now Cortes feels like she is just one of the guys, even though she’s a girl.
“I’m accepted here because they don’t see me as a girl anymore,” Cortes said. “They see me as a teammate.”
Cortes trains with many different teammates, primarily freshman Nick Smith but also with bigger wrestlers like juniors Nick Giurini and freshman Robert Martinez, who start at 113 and 120, respectively. She even spars with Boyd, who won a state championship at 145 for St. Rita in 2001 and wrestled at Illinois, and assistant coach Don McGregor.
“She’s really raw but she is always in your face, always pushing the pace looking to tire you out,” Boyd said. “I’m a lot bigger than her but she’s really flexible and she’s really tough.”
While Cortes is personable and relaxed outside the wrestling room, she unleashes the intensity of a lion while on the mat, a trait that endears her to her teammates.
“She’s always working hard,” said Giurini, a potential state place-winner. “She’s always trying to improve her technique. It’s almost as if she was a guy.
“I think she fits in just fine. Everyone treats her the same, just like anyone else. She’s always pushing us and we’re always pushing her.”
So what leads a girl to take on guys in what is arguably the toughest sport?
“I’m just in love with the sport,” Cortes said. “The whole vibe, the energy, the feel, it’s like all physical. Every single muscle in your body gets explored in six minutes. Six minutes is a short time but it’s everything I work for over three months.”
That work is difficult, which makes her victories that much more rewarding.
“The best thing [about wrestling] is showing the guys that I’m just as good and I can be great and the toughest part is that I feel I always have to prove my spot,” Cortes said. “I don’t want to be the JV or the backup to the varsity starter. I want to be the starter and show that I’m better than them.”
Cortes is in wrestling for the long haul. An honor student who has a 4.0 GPA, she hopes to major in biology and earn a wrestling scholarship at McKendree University, which just started a women’s program.
Boyd is planning to take Cortes to several girls tournaments next summer. Cortes hopes to finish in the top four at nationals and says wrestling boys is good preparation.
“Wrestling guys, they’re obviously going to be stronger than me, but I have to be more technical,” Cortes said. “I have to know what I’m doing. For girls I can overpower them just as easily.”
As for the opponents she has beaten?
“They get really upset because, ‘Oh, it’s a girl, she doesn’t deserve to win, why is she even here?'” Cortes said with a laugh.
They better get used to it. The Bulldogs are an up-and-coming program and Boyd expects Cortes to be a co-captain next season.
“I told [OPRF] coach [Mike] Powell about [Cortes’ exploits],” Boyd said. “And he said that’s the kind of person you want, boy, girl, whatever.”