A few falls ago when the call went out announcing the start of practice for the Henderson County wrestling team, Naomi Santiago immediately thought of WWE videos she’d watched while recuperating from a dance team injury.
She said she’d always been drawn to the energy and presentation of WWE competitions while watching with her family, so she showed up for the first practice taking place in the HCHS auxiliary gym.
It didn’t take long for her to reach a conclusion, though.
This was not the WWE.
But in the end that didn’t really matter. Undaunted, Naomi became the first female to wrestle for HCHS, and five years later is the first HCHS female signed to wrestle collegiately, which she will do next year at Campbellsville University.
Leaving competitive dancing behind, Naomi made wrestling a year-round focus with disciplined work, even in the off-season. That paid off not only with a chance to compete at the next level but with a No. 2 statewide ranking in her weight class leading into the regional and state competitions in early February.
“It’s exciting to have the first female wrestler at the college level,” said Head Wrestling Coach Jermaine Poynter. “She is a trailblazer, a pioneer.”
Just this year, girls wrestling became a Kentucky High School Athletic Association-sanctioned sport, but Poynter said the HCHS program knew sanctioning was on the way and got a head start by forming a team one year early.
Because the 2022-23 season was the first time HCHS had a girls wrestling team, Naomi started her journey competing against boys in a co-ed environment.
In the first year for the HCHS team, 10 girls from grade 7 (allowed to compete at the varsity level) through grade 12 came out for the sport. This year there are 18 competitors spread across various weight classes. With only two seniors on the team (Naomi and Claudia Mendez), 16 experienced wrestlers will return for the 2024-25 wrestling season.
“Girls wrestling is the fastest-growing sport in the state,” Poynter said. He said HCHS is in a tough region against schools that put wrestling programs in place early. He cited competition against such schools as Union County, Madisonville Central, Apollo, Fort Campbell and southern Indiana schools as opportunities to make HCHS stronger.
“We’ve done a lot to grow the wrestling program and we’ve done really well (at tournaments this year) to put Henderson County out there as a wrestling school,” Poynter said.
Naomi said forming a girls team has been “a game-changer” though competing against boys has benefits.
“Getting pinned by a boy makes you feel weak, but you learn,” she said, noting that it’s a sport in which an athlete can discover a lot about themselves and how to control emotions. “Wrestling is more mental than physical.”
Naomi said wrestling also has given her a purpose for hard work. “It’s helped me become a better person and helped me grow,” she said.
Poynter noted that the HCHS program “preaches” wrestling as a total discipline, not only on the mat but in life as a whole. He said he’d rather see youth development through the sport rather than win all the trophies, though he noted with a grin that winning titles is also nice.
He said Naomi has been successful because she has demonstrated the “heart, discipline and the will to succeed.”
The coach said that, unlike some other sports, wrestling offers an opportunity for any and every young person. There have been successful wrestlers who possess physical challenges including limited size and loss of limbs.
“It’s a great sport for building confidence and self-esteem,” he added.
Some of that comes from strong coaching and family support.
Naomi said her mom, Marcela, has been a big supporter. “I can always hear her at tournaments yelling in the background.”
The coach said that Naomi has been an important leader by helping middle school and youth wrestlers and as a role model for those coming along behind her.
“They look up to her,” he said.
That includes within her own family. She has four younger siblings, and all but the youngest are already wrestling competitively in their age groups.
At her signing as a Campbellsville University Tiger, Naomi reflected publicly on how the program has grown.
“You know, whenever I started, I was the only girl. We had three girls that came to the first practice and then never came back. To see … that we have so many girls now, it really just shows how much the sport has grown,” she said.