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Qiling Wang, Deseret News
Water Canyon's Merci Jessop, left, and Carbon High's Taci Tapia compete in an exhibition match at Water Canyon High School in Hildale on Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018.

HILDALE, Washington County — Velvet Barlow fidgets next to her coach, hiding her smile with her hands, as she prepares to do something she couldn’t even conceive of three years ago.

In a three-year-old school serving a community that has a conflicted history with public education, Barlow prepares to compete in Water Canyon’s first-ever home wrestling dual.

It is a remarkable moment for a community that is still making peace with a system its religious leaders shunned 18 years ago, made even more remarkable because the athletes representing the Water Canyon Wildcats on this December night are almost all girls.

The man who started the program, Cortney English, offers her some last-second advice before she nervously makes her way to the center of the never-before-used wrestling mat, showered by raucous cheers from her family and friends.

“This is our home,” Barlow said as she and her teammates stretched before the match. “We get to prove what we’ve been working on for two years.”

‘Everything is new’

While high school sports and activities are central to most small towns, Hildale is different.

“When we first started, we just had boys and girls basketball,” said Water Canyon athletic director Jack Eves. “We had one boy and one girl who had ever even touched a ball before. So we had to teach them a lot of fundamentals and work with them to understand the concept of basketball.”

" The girls told me they had a choice between canning peaches and taking care of younger brothers and sisters, or doing activities. So they chose to come to wrestling. "
Water Canyon wrestling coach Cortney English

But it wasn't just sports that were missing from life in Hildale, it was public education.

For 13 years the town didn’t have its own schools because in 2000, Warren Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist LDS Church, advised members not to send their children to public schools. In 2002, church leaders wouldn’t allow the Washington County School District to operate a school in the town.

If families wanted their children to attend a public school, they sent them across the border to Arizona’s school, something Water Canyon’s students said was difficult, logistically and emotionally.

“We have a school in town, but it’s on the Arizona side,” said Merci Jessop of the El Capitan school, which is located in Colorado City. “I didn’t like it. If I’d kept going there, I’d probably have dropped out.”

She said the reasons why are hard to explain.

What isn’t hard to explain are the reasons she is the only one of her 29 siblings to attend Water Canyon.

“My friends are here, and this is our school,” she said, admitting the opportunity to compete in sports is a powerful lure. “I like being active. I would do every sport if I could.”

Qiling Wang, Deseret News
Water Canyon's Merci Jessop, left, attempts a handstand as Celesta Barlow watches before the wrestling dual between the Water Canyon Wildcats and Northern Allstars at Water Canyon High School in Hildale on Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018.

Eves said it was difficult for many students to return to public school after years away, and most of them had earned no high school credits. His goal is to offer as many opportunities as possible in as typical a high school environment as possible.

“We’re trying to make it commonplace,” he said of the high school competition. “These are typical kids. … I haven’t been surprised as much as having everybody have the opportunity to try something they’ve never done before. Everything is new to them.”

The school has 260 students in grades 7-12, and Eves said getting students involved in new activities is more about persuading them to stay in school instead of going to work as teens, than about winning trophies and titles.

“I can sit in class or I can go make money,” Eves said. “We’re fighting that, and we’re putting some things in place to help them succeed. … Their success (nodding at the wrestlers) helps.”

Team of girls

Qiling Wang, Deseret News
Water Canyon coach Cortney English, center, talks to his players before the wrestling dual between the Water Canyon Wildcats and Northern Allstars at Water Canyon High School in Hildale on Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018.

English wasn’t sure what to expect, as he reflects while sitting in a room in the elementary school where the wrestling team normally practices.

One thing he didn’t expect, though, was a team consisting primarily of girls.

“We don’t have girls-sanctioned teams in Utah,” English said. “But that first year, I had one boy and eight girls show up. The girls told me they had a choice between canning peaches and taking care of younger brothers and sisters, or doing activities. So they chose to come to wrestling.”

Wrestling is a sport where women are still fighting for inclusion and equal footing. It is, however, one of the fastest-growing sports for women, both in the United States and internationally.

In Utah, the Utah High School Activities Association considers wrestling a co-ed sport, even though it is predominantly a boys sport in which girls can participate.

Despite the fact girls have to wrestle with and against boys, the numbers continue to grow in Utah. Five years ago, 32 girls took the preseason hydration test, a requirement to participate on sanctioned high school teams. This year, 151 girls took the test statewide.

Water Canyon officials may not have anticipated it would be their female students who would embrace wrestling when they decided to offer the sport, but they definitely hired a coach who wouldn’t shy away from the situation.

Before taking the job at Water Canyon, English was working with the USA Wrestling Utah national team, coaching exclusively male wrestlers.

“I started a girls club in Hurricane a few years ago because I have daughters who wrestle,” the veteran coach said. “The lessons you learn in wrestling — self-discipline, accountability, teamwork and hard work — that’s not just for boys. Girls can get the same lessons out of it.”

The Water Canyon wrestling team consists of nine girls and one boy, with wrestlers offering a variety reasons for trying out two years ago. Regardless of what motivated them, they all heard similar criticisms — from “wrestling boys is immoral” to grappling with boys is “dangerous.”

Qiling Wang, Deseret News
Celesta Barlow, center, talks to Merci Jessop, left, inside the weight room before the wrestling dual between the Water Canyon Wildcats and Northern Allstars at Water Canyon High School in Hildale on Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018.

For most of them, that simply galvanized their resolve.

“My ultimate goal was to prove to this town that we can achieve more than what people were telling us we could,” Barlow said. “It was, girls had a specific role and boys had a specific role, and I didn’t like it.”

Meg Fischer, 17, said she wanted to prove she could do something different, but she “chickened out” last year.

“I was afraid of getting beat up,” the sophomore said with a shy smile. “But then I got it through my head that I can beat them up.”

Celesta Barlow, 17, said she went into that first tryout because her friends wanted her to join them. Like most of the girls, her parents had mixed feelings.

“My mom was like, ‘Yeah, you can do it as long as you can still do all the other stuff I need you to do,’” she said laughing. “And my dad was like, ‘Not against boys! They’re biologically stronger and they’re going to hurt you.’ And they did, and it was fine.”

Doors opening

Jessop’s reasons for participating are not different than any other athlete at any other high school — she loves to compete.

She also competes in cross-country, and finished sixth in the 1A classification at the state cross-country meet in October. She went 5-0 at a girls club wrestling tournament in Nevada, and she’s been invited to wrestle in the Utah All-Star Duals meet at Utah Valley University on Jan. 8.

“I didn’t really know what to expect,” she said of that first wrestling practice.

English said Jessop’s raw athletic ability is stunning.

“She’s very, very talented,” he said. “She’s just now starting to buy into it. … She’s just slowly starting to believe in herself and find some success. I have no doubt that if she’s willing to work hard and continue growing, she can be competing in college.”

Jessop blushes at the suggestion.

College is as foreign a concept to her as wrestling once was.

Jessop admits her first love is running, but she relishes the fact that her aggressive nature is valued in wrestling.

“I’m still trying to figure that out,” she said of what she aspires to do in wrestling. “I don’t know what I want to do. I’m testing my limits.”

Qiling Wang, Deseret News
Water Canyon's Merci Jessop, left, and Carbon High's Taci Tapia compete during an exhibition match at Water Canyon High School in Hildale on Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018.

Participating in wrestling has given the student-athletes more confidence, and it’s showed them a world beyond the picturesque Southern Utah town where they live.

“We’re trying to prove that girls can do whatever they want to do,” said Velvet Barlow, who is a member of the student council and active in the community.

English said participating on the team has become more than a way to escape chores.

“I teach them to just always be moving forward,” he said. “The only time they really lose is when they quit. … And they just keep going. It just amazes me.”

He said experiencing the sport through their eyes has made him feel “young” again.

“It makes you appreciate the simple things in life,” he said. “You forget how fortunate we really are in Utah to have the opportunities we do.”

Not just fun and games

Lawrence Barlow only admits his reticence to his daughter’s wrestling after Velvet teases him about his now-allayed concerns.

“I was afraid they were going to hurt my baby,” he said, as Velvet giggles in the background. “It is a little tender for me to watch her compete. As a dad, I work pretty hard to protect them from all harm. … It’s really hard to watch.”

But watching how the sport has given her confidence has changed how he feels about her participation.

“The thing that’s really been impressive to me is that it’s helped her develop her leadership skills,” Lawrence said.

And then he chronicles Velvet’s role in helping the team raise enough money to travel to the girls club state tournament last year.

Qiling Wang, Deseret News
Velvet Barlow, center, listens to her mother talking after the wrestling dual between the Water Canyon Wildcats and Northern Allstars at Water Canyon High School in Hildale on Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018.

They estimated it would take $100 per wrestler, so Lawrence gave his daughter the money that was needed. She used that money to pay the entry fees for the entire team, and then she and her teammates put together bake sales to raise the money.

“The mayor had the gas station open up and let them sell products there because it was cold outside,” Lawrence said. “They raised enough money to get everyone there.”

At the last minute, two members of the team decided not to go, angering Velvet and some of the other wrestlers.

They used that as fuel at the state meet, earning the school’s first state championship trophy.

“This year she took the initiative and got herself a job on the weekends, and paying all of her fees,” Lawrence said. “I’m really proud of her for taking it on.”

Embracing change

Lawrence Barlow said he understands the reluctance some have embracing the school and its activities.

“If you go back to our culture, it was very discouraging of competitive sports,” he said. “We were taught that it brought in the spirit of contention and unrest, so we never even had intramurals.”

Now, watching his children represent the town’s high school on sports teams fills him with pride. It has not always been an easy transition, but it is becoming more acceptable to embrace education and all that comes with it, while holding fast to their traditional values.

“When we got the public school back here, when my daughters went back to school,” he said, “they were all still wearing the long, traditional dresses, and they were pretty determined not to change out of that.”

He talked with them about how he wore different uniforms, including that of a fire fighter, paramedic, security guard or nurse. Their faithfulness, he said, wasn’t measured by what they wore. They could be modest in a variety of attire.

“It’s no different for you,” he told them. “Whether it's wrestling or basketball or coveralls to work in the wood lab, just go about your work. If you want to change back afterward, do that. They realized it was no longer a stigma of worthiness. I didn’t make them guilty, bad or wrong, and they really blossomed with that.”

He said he and his wife have discussed that their children are living in a different time and different world than they did, and they will have to navigate it as best they can.

“The way I grew up, the way my wife grew up, they didn’t get to grow up like that,” he said. “It’s not functional or compatible to go back to the way we grew up. We just have to say, here are some principles, maintain modesty, be about your work, support the team. … Just teach them the principles and then give them room enough that they can learn.”

Jessop and the others said they know there are those who don’t support their participation in sports — or attending a public school. But they hope they’re making the best argument to shift that thinking with their success.

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“Some of my siblings aren’t allowed because they’re in the church,” Jessop said, shrugging when asked how they feel about her athletic accomplishments. “I don’t really know what they think because I don’t talk to all of them. But I think they’d be supportive.”

All of Water Canyon's wrestlers said they hope to show the world that Hildale is more than the stereotypes that have defined it to outsiders.

“When I’m out there on the mat, it’s just me,” Jessop said. “But later, it’s like, ‘Yeah, this is for my family, too.’”