Popeye had his spinach, but 13-year-old Riley Bauer has her jelly beans.
The seventh-grader at Roxana Middle School joked that eating jelly beans before her matches on March 15 in Yorkville at the girls’ state wrestling meet helped her win a state title in the 105-pound bracket. Bauer’s state title qualified her for the national tournament in Oklahoma City on March 28-29, but unfortunately she wasn’t able to find the same success, losing two tight matches.
But it’s more than jelly beans that drive this young girl to excel in a boys’ world. Most of Bauer’s competition comes against boys. Since starting at the age of 9, she’s learned to hold her own in the circle against her male brethren.
For her dad, Tim, seeing her on the mat is a surprise, but a welcome one.
“She’s one of three daughters, so the last thing I expected was to be spending every weekend at wrestling tournaments,” Tim said. “It’s pretty exciting and it’s pretty exciting to see her excel in a boys’ sport, too.”
There was no deep, philosophical reason she decided to become a wrestler -— her reason was simple.
“I saw people slamming each other and it looked really cool and really fun,” Riley said with a giggle. “I don’t really know what I was thinking when I joined, but the first practice really made me want to stay in it.”
Staying in it is an understatement. She has gone from struggling to compete with the boys to winning more than half of her matches against them.
“Whenever she was 9 and she started, she only won one match the first year, but she just loved it so much and wanted to keep doing it,” Tim said. “Now I’m awfully proud; she wins more than 50 percent of her matches against boys and that’s very exciting. We tell everybody, the boys and the girls, whenever you step out on the mat it’s just a wrestler. You lose the gender when you get out on the mat.”
Tim admitted that 90-95 percent of her bouts are against boys, but Riley’s learned to cope with that. She said there is a difference in wrestling boys and girls, for the most part.
“When I wrestle girls they’re not usually as strong, but they’re usually really technical,” Riley said. “But there are some girls that I’ve wrestled that it’s just like wrestling a boy, like the girls at nationals.”
Riley was stoked to go to nationals.
“The national tournament was really cool,” Riley said. “The first girl I wrestled felt like a boy when I wrestled her; she was really strong compared to what she looked like. In the second match we were tied, but then we scrambled and she got me onto my back and that’s how I lost that one.”
Rob Milazzo, varsity head coach of the Roxana Shells, has taken notice of her success. Milazzo said he thinks girls’ wrestling will become more commonplace in the near future.
“Riley is setting an example and I’m sure others will follow in her footsteps and sometimes you just need someone to pave the way and I’m sure she’s going to make it all the way through,” Milazzo said. “She intends to wrestle in college and I think it’s a great thing for someone to get into. It’s not just wrestling, but MMA, or girls are boxing now. It’s not our father’s world of wrestling anymore; it’s a new era and it’s something I think we’re going to see a lot more of in the future.”
Getting that state title was definitely a highlight for Riley and Tim.
“State was just so exciting,” Riley said. “My dad looked like he was going to explode after I won my last match.”
A seventh-grader now, being a Shell wrestler is a goal, along with aspirations to wrestle beyond the prep level.
“She intends to wrestle all through high school and wrestle in college or military service. She wants to be a Marine,” Tim said.
As for jelly beans being the driving force behind her success, that may not be the case, but Milazzo said she’s doing the right things.
“She’s a fierce competitor and has worked very hard to get where she is; she’s worked in the summer and offseason she’s lifting weights,” he said. “She’s doing everything you’re supposed to do to become a champion and I expect big things from her in time. At some point I hope she’ll be able to accomplish her goals not only against the girls, but against the boys as well.”