Angel Rios celebrates at the 2019 Colorado high school state wrestling championship. (Photo: Tori Damian)
It’s not like Angel Rios really had a choice. She was born into a family of wrestlers. Even a premature birth couldn’t slow her down.
Rios spent the first four months of her life in a hospital but soon started spending time at the gym. Two of her older brothers were wrestling and the whole Rios clan got involved.
“So my dad coached one,” Rios said, “and my mom had me at the corner by her side, coaching another brother when I was in my car seat.”
It was hard to walk around the Rios family household without stepping over tumbling torsos. Rios is the seventh-born in a family with eight kids. By age 3 she had already followed in the footsteps of her three older brothers and started to wrestle.
Jump to last month, and there she was making history as one of Colorado’s first two female wrestlers to make it to the podium in the 84-year history of the high school state tournament. Rios finished fourth in her class, while Jaslynn Gallegos finished fifth.
Both athletes secured victories after their opponent Brendan Johnston refused to wrestle girls and forfeited the matches.
Listening to Rios, a junior, recap her experience, it sounds like after some initial nerves, she took the historic moment in stride.
“I feel like I didn’t look at it any different than a normal tournament,” Rios said. “It’s kind of normal for me.”
But for Rios’s mom Cher Muniz-Rios, there was nothing normal about that day.
“Actually I didn’t know it was 84 years until I heard somebody else talking about that,” Muniz-Rios said. “It’s just really overwhelming. It took a while to sink in actually.”
Success is nothing new to Rios, who claimed a gold medal in Buenos Aires at the 2017 Cadet Pan-Am games, dominating an all-girls field. Though the Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSAA) piloted an all-girls wrestling state tournament this year, Rios wanted to compete against the opponents she’s faced her whole life: boys.
Three hundred female wrestlers across 100-plus programs participated in the sport this school year but only 12 took part in the Colorado state tournament, according to CHSAA associate commissioner Ernie Derrera. He said on April 24, the CHSAA will hold a vote to introduce girls wrestling as a sanctioned sport for the 2020-21 school year.
Ironically though, if that happens, wrestling against boys will no longer be an option for girls at schools with all-female teams. “If there are some girls out there that still want to compete with the boys, I feel like that’s still limiting them,” Rios said. “Right now there’s not even enough girls to have a tournament.”
Rios still has another year left to make an impact on the high school level (medals, anyone?) and she’s currently eyeing a college wrestling career and criminal justice degree. With lofty aspirations to be an Olympian and mixed martial artist, Rios is likely to keep making headlines.
“I don’t think gender has anything to do with her success,” said Rios’ coach Ruben Lucero. “She’s worked hard her entire life and hard work paid off for her this time. She’s a competitor. She knows what she wants and she goes after it. She works her butt off at her craft and she never gives up.”