Gracie Garza is the first RBHS female wrestler to qualify for a national championship tournament, the ASICS/Vaughan Junior Freestyle National Wrestling Championship in Fargo, N.D. on July 16. (Courtesy Starlyn White)

While girls have broken the glass ceiling in sports in recent years, one sport that continues to remain male-dominated is wrestling.

However, 17-year-old Gracie Garza made her mark this past May as one of just a couple females in Riverside-Brookfield High School history to qualify for a national wrestling championship event.

Liliana Cortes, the first female to ever wrestle on the RBHS varsity team during the 2013-14 season, was also the first female to compete (2014) and place (2015) at a national tournament.

Following Cortes’ groundbreaking lead at RBHS, Garza appears to be another female wrestler with great promise.

Garza, a North Riverside resident, placed third in the Illinois Girls Freestyle State Championship at Andrew High School in Tinley Park, qualifying her to wrestle in the ASICS/Vaughan Junior Freestyle National Wrestling Championship in Fargo, North Dakota on July 16. Garza will represent Team Illinois in the junior freestyle national division in the 117-pound weight class.

Garza was first introduced to wrestling two years after being persuaded by former RBHS instructor and wrestling coach Mike Boyd.

“I was in Coach Boyd’s academic support class and he would always tell me, ‘You should come to the wrestling room,'” Garza said. “I finally went and it was the worst thing I did in my entire life but I liked it.”

Garza was in complete awe at the first practice she saw.

“The very first day I walked in, all these boys looked at me and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ It was the hardest thing ever. It was really frustrating at first because I didn’t know anything.”

While Garza played volleyball at RBHS, she realized wrestling contained the athletic rigor she had been looking for.

“I wanted to get stronger and in a lot better shape and I just really liked the intensity of the room,” Garza said. “You could tell everyone down there was working towards one goal. That’s what their whole program was all about.”

After joining the team, Garza was hesitant to share her new passion with her family.

“My whole family thought it was a phase that I was wrestling because I would never invite anyone to my meets,” she said. “I’ve always been nervous when my family comes [to sports.] They didn’t really know if I was winning or if I lost.”

She also initially faced some concerns from family about safety.

“My dad didn’t like that I wrestled at first [and] told me not to wrestle,” she said. “He didn’t like that I was going to be wrestling boys. Because it’s such a contact sport, it made him uncomfortable.”

Gracie’s older sister Olivia, who lettered in tennis four years at RBHS and played nationally through College of DuPage, thinks wrestling has greatly helped Gracie.

“I am very proud of her for coming this far,” Olivia said. “Competing nationally is unlike anything else. Every bit of training [and] every ounce of strength will be put out there. For that, she’s already won.”

Although Boyd resigned from RBHS this spring after a contract dispute with administrators, Garza continues to see him as a mentor. She travels with other boy and girl wrestlers up to four times a week to practice with Boyd at area high schools in the summer.

“When boys wrestle girls, they’re not trying to get beat by a girl,” Garza said. “I’ve beat boys before and they weren’t trying to lose to me. Nowadays, there’s a decent amount of girls in wrestling and our generation is maybe one of the first breaking through.”

While Garza had to shift from folkstyle high school wrestling to freestyle for nationals, she likes freestyle better because it will prepare her for the possibility of wrestling in college.

Garza wants girls to know that wrestling can be a great outlet for athletic growth and personal change.

“The whole entire sport is so hard and demanding that you have to give yourself to the sport,” she said. “Wrestling has helped me change my attitude towards certain things and my physical and mental health.”