Friday, February 8, 2008

Gwendolyn Haley has taken to the sport 'like a fish to water

Three Cypress Ridge coaches offer last-minute instructions to sophomore wrestler Gwendolyn Haley.

Haley signals OK, emerges from the huddle and goes to the mat.photos

Haley chases her opponent, relenting only when the referee taps her shoulder at each stoppage of action. At 102 pounds, she's quick and flexible. But there's more to her arsenal.

Once Haley is in control of her opponent, her muscular frame flexes to make takedowns easy, escapes implausible. Then Haley turns up the pressure, her biceps and shoulders bulging like those of a bodybuilder as she rolls her opponent to her back.

The referee signals Haley's successful pinfall by slapping the mat. And then the celebration begins as her teammates raise their hands wildly over their heads.

It might seem like an unusual congratulatory gesture, but it's the best way for the Cy Ridge wrestlers to translate the roar of the crowd for a teammate who only hears the sounds of silence.

A fast learner

Although you might not notice by watching her wrestle, Haley is deaf. She communicates primarily through her interpreter/assistant coach Patti Lury, sign language or text message. She also reads lips.

Those who know the Cy Ridge wrestler best call her gifted, a quick study on the mat and even a team leader at times.

Haley helped the Lady Rams secure their place in the state duals at a recent qualifier with a dramatic pin against Katy in the final match. Cy Ridge then tied Waller for the girls dual state championship with a Haley pin in the final.

"She's gone from a novice to having a bona fide chance of making it to state this year," Cy Ridge coach Tim Ray said. "She's like a fish to water."

As a first-year wrestler, Haley, who owns an 18-5 record and three tournament titles, has become one of the top 102-pounders in Region III and a contender for the state wrestling tournament in Austin on Feb. 22-23.

She tries to qualify for state today and Saturday during the Region III championships at Katy's Merrell Center.

"I'm naturally athletic," said Haley, communicating through sign language to interpreter Lury. "My mom and dad were good athletes. But I don't like the weight room. I've been playing sports my whole life, including softball, volleyball and track. Now wrestling.

"Coach Ray has been friendly to me, and (my teammates) help me with techniques. I'm equal on the mat because I pay more attention with my eyes."

Lury, who works for Cy-Fair ISD, communicates through sign language with Haley in class and on the mat.

At most matches, Lury paces the mat furiously when Haley or deaf teammate Chris Warmack — the varsity boys' talented 140-pounder — is competing.

Cy Ridge has operated a regional hub for hearing-impaired students from Waller, Katy, Klein, Spring, Magnolia and Spring Branch school districts for six years, Cy Ridge principal Claudio Garcia said. The school has 37 deaf students.

"Gwen has a lot of determination. I admire her for going out there in such a contact sport as wrestling and giving it her all," Garcia said. "She is a young lady with a disability, but it's not a disability to her. And she is representing her family and school at a very high level."

Starting from scratch

New to wrestling at Cy Ridge last fall, Haley started slightly unsure of the holds, takedowns and defensive maneuvers of the sport. But she has learned a lot in a short time. Haley has many friends on the team who are her teachers, including senior state tournament veterans Jessica Nguyen at 95 pounds and Kendra Lewis at 148.

Although she weighs in at about 100 pounds, don't get the idea Haley is frail. She's cut like a petite bodybuilder with biceps, shoulders and abdominal muscles that are the envy of her physically fit team.

Haley wants to compete at state, which is a big task for a rookie wrestler at any weight in Region III. Actually, she has two goals this season: earning a spot at state and beating Nguyen just once in practice. Nguyen is among the favorites for the 95-pound state crown after placing fifth at 102 last year.

"She's strong, but for Gwendy, her mat awareness is her strength," Ray said. "She knows where she is visually.

"I do expect her to be a leader for us next year."

She already has been an inspiration.

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