The mat room, hidden in the back hallways of the University of Oregon Student Recreation Center, smells of sweat and dirty socks.
It’s 6 p.m. on a Tuesday evening and Katie Kelly sits on the mat. She puts on her wrestling shoes and ties her long, wavy hair into a braid.
With her hair secured, Kelly gets up and joins the men as they warm up for UO wrestling club practice.
“None of this would have been possible without Katie working to establish the team,” said Payton Bruni, a member of the club wrestling team.
Kelly is not just the only woman at practice tonight, she is the only woman in the club. In fact, she is the president of the club and one of the main reasons the wrestling club is rejuvenated and competing again.
When she was in eighth grade, Kelly joined her middle school’s wrestling team. She quickly became passionate about the sport and its physicality.
“I’m super uncoordinated, in terms of hand-eye coordination,” Kelly said. “Ball sports have never been my forte. But I was a rambunctious kid, and so it was really nice having that kind of physical outlet.”
In both middle school and high school, she found strength in being the only woman on her team. She competed and practiced against men in the 145 and 152-pound weight classes. In her five years wrestling before college, she only competed against women four times in dual meets — outside of all-girl tournaments like the Girls State Wrestling Tournament.
As an eighth grader she finished second in Girls State, taking home the first-place title her senior year of high school.
“I think being on the team with guys made me a much better wrestler,” Kelly said. “I think that benefitted me as a wrestler, because when you are wrestling bigger, more talented people, you get better. Being on a team with all guys, when I went to go wrestle another girl it was way easier.”
She joined the UO wrestling club during her sophomore year at Oregon. The small group of wrestlers mainly just “rolled around” at the rec center and wrestled one another, Kelly said. She realized that in order to have the opportunity to compete, the club would need to reorganize. So, she took it upon herself to step up and become the club’s president.
“No one else was going to do it,” Kelly said. “There wasn’t going to be a club if I didn’t do it.”
Thanks to Kelly, the wrestling club has competed in a handful of tournaments so far this year.
“This year, it feels more real,” club treasurer Tony Munoz said. “Last year it just felt like a bunch of people just getting together, but now it feels like a team.”
As the club’s first female president, Kelly is laying the foundation for something much bigger than any weight class competitor.
“The end goal is bringing back a wrestling team to the University of Oregon,” Kelly said. “Which won’t happen in the time that I am here. But the end goal is not to have my name on a plaque, the end goal is for the team to come back.”
Follow Maggie Vanoni on Twitter @maggie_vanoni