By PATRICK SLACK
Mercedes Waagen is known around the Little Falls wrestling room as “one of the guys.”
She now has a more official one: All-American.
Growing up as one of the few female wrestlers in a sport predominantly filled by males, Waagen rose to new heights at the USA Wrestling Junior Women National Freestyle Championships in Fargo, N.D., July 15 – 16, placing eighth at 130 pounds.
After falling to the eventual fourth-place finisher from Alabama in her opening match, Waagen came back to pin Dani McClennen of Oregon in 1:13 in her second bout.
Following a bye, Waagen clinched a spot on the medal stand with a 9-4 decision over Shannon Henry of New York, and with it All-American honors.
“It felt amazing to earn an All-American honor as an absolute beginner to freestyle,” Waagen said. “I really didn’t have any goals going into Fargo considering it would only be my second time wrestling freestyle. I just went in and wrestled smart and just had fun with it. First time, can’t lose anything, right?”
Waagen squared off against the eventual national champion in her next bout, then closed competition in the placing round to finish eighth out of 23 wrestlers in her bracket.
“I believe I was just setting goals for next year, which is to place higher than eighth,” Waagen said. “The experience was fun, meeting and seeing female wrestlers all at one place was a good feeling.”
Competing in the women’s division marked a stark change for Waagen, who has spent almost all of her 12 years in wrestling competing against males, starting in kindergarten.
“At the time, my older brother was in it and my dad was the coach,” Waagen said. “My mom worked nights, so I got brought along to practice every night. When there was an odd man out my dad would ask me to wrestle them. I did, not thinking anything of it, mainly shy being a girl and all.”
Shortly after that, Waagen progressed beyond being simply a throw-in practice partner, developing into one of the top wrestlers on her team.
“My dad is the one who noticed how quickly I grasped the concept of taking your opponent down and pinning them,” she said. “He then encouraged me to join and get better. I never thought about joining until my dad noticed how well I was doing in practice. I can definitely say that winning, having fans, having support and proving that girls are tough too is what made me want to stay in it at first.
“Wrestling is a sport that you hate, but love at the same time,” she said. “You hate how brutal practices are, how beat up and tired you get and the worst, losing. On the other hand, you fall in love with the feeling of accomplishment. Winning just one match feels so good after all the work and effort you put into getting there.”
Despite being the lone girl on the Little Falls team, Waagen said her teammates have made it easy for her to continue with the sport.
“It hasn’t been hard at all. I mean, yeah, I’ll get that one new guy on the team every once in awhile that thinks girls shouldn’t wrestle, but after he sees that I’m serious they warm up to me.”
“I love my team,” she said. “To them I’m ‘one of the guys.’ They don’t treat me like an outcast and they stick up for me if another team is bad-mouthing me. Yeah, they tease me and what not, but when it gets down to it, they all enjoy watching me wrestle whether I win or lose. They’re all like my brothers. Most of us grew up together.”
Waagen, who placed third at the Minnesota state tournament to qualify for nationals, will compete in her junior season for Little Falls this winter, then take another crack at finishing even higher next year in Fargo.
“Seeing how determined some of them were pushed me to try even harder just with my high school team,” Waagen said. “I’m definitely looking forward to it again next year.”