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Wrestling coach takes the fight for gender equity one opponent at a time

By Anapesi Kaili | Mach 16, 2017

Olivia Fatongia felt ignored when she first arrived in Northern Utah.

Then 23 years old, Fatongia said she spent weeks trying to get the leaders of Utah State University’s wrestling club to take her seriously.

“When I finally showed up to practice, they took me lightly,” she said. “They thought I was a joke.”

Then the two-time Hawaii state champion and 185-pound national champion got on the mat.

“After seeing me wrestle, I think they changed their minds,” she said. “We have now all become good friends.”

It wasn’t the first time she had to fight for respect, nor was it the last. And these days she’s fighting again – this time alongside the wrestlers she coaches, who have taken their struggle for equality from the mat to the courtroom.

Earlier this year, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that Central Davis Junior High School had to allow one of Fatongia’s wrestlers to try out for the school’s previously all-male wrestling team — at least so long as the federal lawsuit the girl’s mother filed is playing out in the courts.

It wasn’t a pin. But Fatongia sees it as a point in the right direction — another small victory in an ever-so-slow battle that, she has learned, must be fought one opponent at a time.

The beginning of Fatongia’s wrestling career started her freshman year in high school in Hawaii, where her parents had migrated from Tonga in hopes of pursuing the American dream.

The first time she knew wrestling was the right sport for her was when she was embarrassed in front of a crowd at a tournament.

“I got pinned in the center mat at my first wrestling tournament in Maui,” Fatongia said, “and it killed my ego. I knew I had to redeem myself and decided to take it seriously and train harder.”

She also found motivation and inspiration from her father, who is a general contractor.  

“My dad is a hard worker and never complained about working in the sun just so I could receive an education and eat,” Fatongia said. “I’ve never seen my dad prouder than when the refs would raise my hand after a victory.”

At first, though, it had been hard to convince everyone in her family that the wrestling mat was an appropriate place for a woman.

Filimone, one of Fatongia’s older brothers, struggled with her decision to take up wrestling.

“Being from the Polynesian culture you really respect the woman,” he said, “and I didn’t want to see her doing something like wrestling.”

But the treatment Fatongia got for being a girl wrestler angered him.

“It was hard,” he said. “I knew that she could compete. She grew up wanting to do all this stuff, I mean she had two older brothers. She wasn’t given the same opportunities and it was hard to see her go through that… Once I saw the potential and how much she loved it. I gave her my support.

After moving from Hawaii to Utah for school — and overcoming her fellow Aggies’ initial reluctance to let her train with them — Fatongia found an assistant coaching role at Logan High School.

She was asked to work with the girls — and often felt rebuffed by the boys.

“When I was coaching at Logan I would try to help the boys out, but they would refuse to take advice from me because I was a girl,” Fatongia said. “I’d tell them exactly what a male coach would say after me but it didn’t mean jack squat.”

If women were going to get respect on the mat, she realized, they were going to have to stop being seen as a novelty. There would have to be more of them – lots more.

Today, Fatongia coaches girls ages 6 to 18 throughout Northern Utah.

“She knows how to get the best out of her girls and she’s very detailed and strict with being mentally tough,” said Fatongia’s fiancé, Kehe Malafu. “It can be difficult for her sometimes because the girls wrestling is not as big here as it is in Hawaii, but the drive for success does rub off on the girls when she trains them. Parents recognize how great of a coach she is so she's in high demand.

Kelly Janis, a mother of one of the girls Fatongia coaches, recently went to court with her 15-year old daughter Kathleen to be permitted to wrestle at a junior high level.

As a ninth-grader, boys have the choice of either trying out for the high school team or staying at the junior high level. But Janis’ daughter Kathleen was not given the same choice. Kathleen had a choice of either trying-out for the high school team or missing out on an opportunity to wrestle for the school she attended.

Although the Utah High School Athletics Association handbook does not use gender pronouns under its wrestling regulations, the Title 34 federal athletic code states: “Where a recipient operates or sponsors a team in a particular sport for members of one sex but operates or sponsors no such team for members of the other sex and athletic opportunities for members of that sex have previously been limited, members of the excluded sex must be allowed to try out for the team offered unless the sport involved is a contact sport.”

The “contact sport” part of the rule didn’t make sense to the Janis family, which took its grievances to the court system.

Although the suit is ongoing, on Feb. 2 Judge Robert Shelby granted a temporary order to allow Kathleen to try out.

“This sport teaches discipline, confidence, drive, and motivation,” Kelly Janis said. “My daughter has blossomed right in front of me. Wrestling helps the child mature and all assets of life. It helps with decision making, in the classroom and at home. The lessons wrestling teaches my daughter — you can’t buy something like that.” 

Janis credits Fatongia for imparting many of those lessons.

“She is absolutely amazing” Janis said. “She has a quiet strength that can be felt when she walks in the room. Her character and her demeanor are exquisite. She has a very strong spirit and that is reflected in her actions when she coaches my daughter.”