Jim Valente photo
Mandy Liao was looking for a winter sport. The Malden High junior had been involved almost every season in some activity. But the indoor track she ran last year no longer held her interest. She couldn't swim or play basketball, so those sports were out.
She was going to take the season off, until a friend suggested she try a new sport.
"I actually asked her to join," said Alan Kwan, a senior captain on the Malden wrestling team. "She was looking for a winter sport, and we were looking for a lightweight. So, I asked her if she wanted to join."
Liao took Kwan up on his suggestion, but not without a helping hand from another friend.
Before the team's initial meeting of the season, Liao stood outside the practice room, second thoughts creeping through her mind.
"I wasn't going to go in because I was going to back out," she said. "And my coach just walked out the door and one of my friends pushed me into him, and said 'Oh, she wants to wrestle.' So, I did."
Jeremiah Smith, the third-year coach at Malden, could sense Liao's nerves. But he's been through similar scenarios before.
"Actually, we've had a girl try out for the team each of the last three seasons. However, the female wrestlers didn't make it out of the first week till Mandy," Smith said. "I think it certainly helped that she was good friends with a lot of the boys on the team. I think that certainly made it a little bit easier. She's also very strong, athletic, and was able to pick it up. She's in great shape and was able to handle the physical workouts."
With a girl participating on a traditionally all-boys team, Malden athletic director Dan Keefe sent a letter before the season to the ADs of the teams his school would be competing against. He's received no negative feedback - not from his counterparts, the competition, or Liao's teammates.
"They think it's great. They really do," Keefe said of the other Malden wrestlers. "There are no issues at all. I mean none. She works as hard as they do."
Winning her very first match in her very first meet - a varsity meet - likely went a long way to fostering that acceptance.
Liao, who wrestles at 112 pounds, competed against another rookie wrestler in Malden's Dec. 16 meet against Cambridge. Smith acknowledged his own nerves sending her out for her first competition, but also admitted he would feel that way regardless of the gender of a novice wrestler.
"I probably had no reason to be nervous because she can certainly handle herself," he said. "But, it's that protective nature that you don't want her to get hurt. She really doesn't know everything I'd like her to know yet before she steps on that mat."
Smith could have chosen to forfeit that match, but left the decision up to Liao.
"I was really nervous," Liao said. "But I was like, sure, why not."
Liao won her match and Malden won the meet. With that win, Liao secured her place in Malden High history, the first girl to win a varsity wrestling match.
"That was cool," Kwan said. "We were part of history right there. We actually got to see the girl-pinning-the-guy match."
That match and her place on the team have garnered attention from outside the wrestling arena as well, drawing praise in the halls at Malden High. The extra attention at first was disconcerting to Liao, who's starting to take it in stride.
"I think it's a really good thing because people I don't usually talk to are coming to me and saying 'Congratulations' and stuff like that," she said. "Sometimes I forget why they are, and then they say for wrestling. So, I'm glad about that."
Liao plans to wrestle in her senior year, too. She's found her winter sport.
"After our win [last week], [my teammates] were asking me to go out to eat," she said. "But, I said, 'Nah, I don't have any money.' And they were all like, 'You have to,you're part of the team.'''