PHOENIX — It was a historic moment under the spotlights on Saturday for the Championship Rounds of the AIA State Wrestling Tournament. On Mat 5, wrestling official Leslie Tamayo was in charge of calling the matches among the girls, a bracket of the competition that didn’t even exist merely five years ago. After girls wrestling was announced as an emerging sport in 2018, there’s been an explosion in participation numbers across the state.
While the number of girls in wrestling is continuing to grow exponentially, the number of female officials with the AIA has not. For the third consecutive year, Tamayo was the lone female official to call the state championships for the AIA, something she hopes to see change in coming years.
“I’m very honored, and I kind of forget that sometimes because I’m just doing my job,” Tamayo said. “I’m in a good spot right now. I’m meant to be here.”
Who is Leslie Tamayo?
It’s been 15 years since Tamayo’s high school wrestling career first started to unfold, but her story shows just how much evolution there’s been when it comes to women in wrestling.
Tamayo first started wrestling at 12-years-old in middle school, where she was one of the only girls in the sport. When she started high school at Cienega, she decided to continue wrestling and joined the team.
“Back when girls wrestling wasn’t sanctioned, we had our own little makeshift ‘State Tournament,’” Tamayo said. “I would say I’m a state champion in 2010, and runner-up in 2007 and 2009.”
Starting things off strong as a freshman, she suffered an unfortunate injury during her sophomore season, cutting her chances to compete short. She came back her junior year and qualified to state once again, where she was second in the 126-pound weight class. Continuing to develop in the offseason, Tamayo returned for her senior year where she took home the title for the 116-pound weight class.
After high school, Tamayo continued wrestling in college until she was yet again sidelined from the competition. It was at that point she decided to become an official as a way to stay involved with the sport.
While Tamayo’s accomplishments on the mat are no small feat, she believes she is far more accomplished as an official in the world of wrestling than as an athlete. Not only was she the first female to officiate an AIA Wrestling State Championship in 2020, she’s also known on the international scale.
“I was sent over to the Pan Am games in Lima, Peru, which was fun for me,” Tamayo said.
She also touched on getting to officiate the Klippan Lady Open in Sweden, the world’s oldest women’s wrestling tournament. While she’s the only female wrestling official within the AIA, she’s got a network of other females from across the globe to connect and network with when it comes to wrestling.
Road to officiating
Initially, Tamayo’s involvement as an official began as a way to keep her connected to the world of wrestling even though her personal career had come to an end. However, she quickly realized the position she’s placed in as a role model for each and every young woman who steps on the mat across the state.
“I have to be very mindful of how I act, or how I make my call,” Tamayo said. “When I make my calls or if I make a mistake, I take it to heart because I want these girls to know I’m doing it for them.”
Representation is something AIA Executive Director David Hines spoke about leading up to the state wrestling championships. Hines believes it’s critical for young female athletes to see female officials and realize they, too, can become involved.
“Anytime we have the opportunity to put female officials on the mat, we’re gonna do that,” Hines said. “The biggest thing for us, and it’s not even just wrestling, is to have an all female officiating crew doing a female game.”
“I want the girls to know if I’m out there I’m doing it for them. I want them to see me and know they can do what I do someday, and do it just as strongly and just as well,” Tamayo said. “We need more women [in wrestling]… We’re missing out on a lot of intelligent people who could be contributing to the sport.”
In fact, representation was the driving factor behind the change in how the State Championship Tournament was run. Previously, the smaller schools and the girls have wrestled on the first two days of the state championship tournament, while the big schools wrestling on the final two days. This year, the event would be run as one, with five championship mats lined up alongside each other on Saturday evening to determine the gold medal winners.
“I love that the girls got to have their own showcase,” Tamayo said. “I love that the smaller schools had equal representation, too, because a lot of those smaller schools are underestimated.
One of the other changes to this year’s championship tournament was moving it from the Findlay Events Center in Prescott to the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Downtown Phoenix. While there were a number of reasons factoring into the decision, one of the most visible payoffs was in crowd turnout.
“If you’re a wrestling fan, to be able to see the talent that we have,” Hines said. “We have outstanding wrestlers who can compete nationally. We have several Olympic champions who have come through [Arizona High School Wrestling].”
The Madhouse on McDowell was packed, with a good portion of fans spilling over into the upper deck of the arena to create a wrestling environment like no other in the state. During the breaks, the fans kept the energy elevated by creating their own entertainment, doing the wave and flashing their phone lights back and forth.
“I’ve never seen that before,” Tamayo said. “I’ve gone to many events as a fan, as a teammate… I’ve never really seen that. It was really, really fun and I want more. I want more people to keep coming. It was good energy and I like the hype.”
Just as the crowd size had shown improvements from previous years, so had the level of skill on the mat. In the time since officiating her first State Championship in 2020, Tamayo has seen a ton of improvement as the sport continues to grow and competition intensifies.
“I think this is the best wrestling I’ve seen, and it felt different,” Tamayo said.
It’s especially true for girls wrestling, which has grown immensely in both Arizona and the United States, where nearly 70-percent of the country has adopted girls wrestling as an official high school sport.
“I can’t wait to see the wrestling progress within the next four to five years, where the competition is going to be a little bit thicker and harder,” Tamayo said. “I’m going to love every moment of it.”
With Arizona’s prominence in the MMA and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu scene, Tamayo believes wrestling as a whole will continue to grow across the state. With the rise in popularity of combat sports, more children are likely to be exposed to the sport of wrestling at a younger age, which should correlate to a rise in both participation and attendance.
“I want to see the seats at the very, very top be filled,” Tamayo said. “I want it to look like the University of Iowa for a dual meet.”
Tamayo’s hope is for the ladies who’ve recently helped establish girls wrestling in Arizona will remain involved in the sport, even after they’re done competing. Recognizing the time commitment coaching takes, Tamayo said she officiates instead so she can still give back to the sport she loves without such a heavy time commitment.
“Coaching takes up a lot of time, like, you’re with the kids three or four hours a day,” Tamayo said. “Officiating, you’re with the kids briefly. I mean, there’s some dedication that goes into it, but it’s really like you go in there and then you leave.”
Tamayo also noted scholarship opportunities available to referees of the sport, saying there’s, “money to be made here.”
Anyone interested in becoming an official with the AIA can visit their website at the start of the school year for information on meetings, along with how to sign up.
Brittany Bowyer is a freelance journalist who started her career as an intern for a small sports website back in 2015. Since then, she’s obtained her master’s degree in Sports Journalism from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU and is in her fourth year of covering various levels of sports across a broad range of platforms in Arizona. You can follow her on twitter @bbowyer07