While most of her classmates fill their free time with friends and other activities typical of 13-year-olds, eighth-grader Ally Fitzgerald spends hours in wrestling rooms training for upcoming matches and tournaments, or working on her jujitsu technique.
When Ally was a victim of first-grade bullying, her parents, Peter and Rebecca, signed her up for jujitsu classes to build her confidence. Little did they know she would excel at it and use the techniques she learned to become one of the best wrestlers in the history of the Lynbrook School District — taking on both male and female opponents.
“I like testing my ability against other competitors,” Ally said, her eyes lighting up as she spoke about competing. “I like winning.”
She has done a lot of winning. Because she is one of the only girls competing at the middle school level, most of her success has come against boys. She recently capped her second straight undefeated season wrestling for Lynbrook South Middle School. Over the past two seasons she has gone 11-0, winning nine of her matches by pin. She was also one of 39 candidates selected from around the country that have a chance to make the Team USA Wrestling Cadet Women’s National Team, which could eventually be a bridge to Olympic wrestling.
“She doesn’t have a normal childhood,” her mother said. “She wrestles or does jujitsu, but she loves it.”
Ally’s success has created a buzz, and a representative of the USAW Cadet team who recently saw her wrestle invited her to train with the team last month. In May she will take part in the Body Bar Women’s National Championship tournament in Texas, and if she wins, she will earn a spot on the Cadets team of 14 and 15-year-olds. Ally, who will turn 14 in October, said she hopes that being a member of the Cadets will eventually lead to an Olympic run for her.
She began wrestling with the Lynbrook Titans Wrestling kids’ program at age 9. She said she watched her younger brother, Liam, now 11, compete and thought she could do it, too. She noted that she has no qualms about going up against boys.
“I was used to it from jujitsu,” she said. “My first wrestling tournament I ever did, I got first, and I impressed my parents because they didn’t know what to expect. And then, I fell in love with it ever since.” She added that her strategy is to stick to her mechanics and not to think about the size — or gender — of her opponents.
Rebecca said she was a little surprised when her daughter told her she wanted to wrestle. “I was like, ‘Really, do you wanna be a wrestler? Can’t you be a dancer or something?’” she recalled with a laugh.
In February, Ally took the gold in the Pan Kids International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation Championship in California, beating seven other girls in her division. Last weekend she placed first in the New York Wrestling Association for Youth state tournament in Syracuse for the third straight year, competing against girls. She has also won many local tournaments wrestling against boys, and will try to become the first female varsity wrestler in Lynbrook High School history next year.
Bob Bennett, who coaches the Lynbrook South Middle School team with Jim O’Hara, said he was inspired to return to coaching when he heard about Ally. “I was out of coaching for three years,” he said. “And she’s the main reason I came back to coaching. I’ve never had an experience like this before, where I had the opportunity to coach someone like her.”
Bennett said Ally is “insane with training.” He added that she has the skill level of a college wrestler. She also set a school record by cranking out 111 pushups during an endurance challenge, breaking the previous record of 108 set by all-conference wrestler Anthony Salamone a few years earlier.
Though Ally has enjoyed success on the mat, she has faced many obstacles as a girl in a male-dominated sport. On March 16 she was scheduled to have her final match of the middle school season, but the other team did not have an opponent for her. Rebecca said that this situation occurs frequently.
“They don’t want to lose to her,” she said. “So they would rather not go against her. She’s had situations where boys have lost to her and their friends are making fun of them … and I feel terrible about it. But I find that it’s sad that they don’t see her as a great wrestler and a competitor when she works just as hard as they do.” She added that when her daughter doesn’t have a match and sits on the sidelines, it cuts into time that she could use to train.
Hilary Becker, who runs the Lynbrook Titans Wrestling kids’ program, expressed optimism about the growth of female wrestling. He noted that Ally is part of an increasing number of women getting involved in the sport.
“It’s only natural that there’s going to be resistance,” Becker said. “I am confident that moving forward, people will support Ally, and won’t look at her as a girl wrestler, but just as a great wrestler. Because that’s what she is.”
Rebecca said that her daughter has drawn inspiration from another trailblazing wrestler, Helen Maroulis, who became the first American woman to win a gold medal in women’s freestyle wrestling at the Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro last year. “That was a big deal,” she said. “Somebody can do it. This is like a realistic dream. It’s something that could be achieved if you really work hard.”
According to Rebecca, Ally has gotten attention at the middle school even from people she doesn’t know. “People would come up to me and be like, ‘Oh my God, I love watching your daughter,’” Rebecca recalled. “Absolute strangers. People would be like, ‘How’d she do this year?’ People I’ve never met and never saw in my life. And it’s amazing.”
She added that Ally’s competing in the Olympics would be the “ultimate dream” for their family.
“A girl can do anything with hard work and dedication and determination,” said Rebecca. “So many things can happen if you work hard and are determined.”