For a girl who was at first rejected by her high school coach, Pennsbury senior Kaitlin Fitzpatrick hasn't done bad for herself on the wrestling mat.
More to the point, she's done quite well, winning a national championship last year and taking second place at the FILA Body Bar Women's National Championships last spring in Florida.
That's pretty good for a girl who only began her career on the mat in the 7th-grade, making good on a lunch table dare at Charles Boehm Middle School.
"Somebody said wrestling is the toughest sport there is and I said, ' I could do it; why not?''
Today at Pennsbury Television Studios on the East Campus, the culmination of events that dare put into motion came to a head as Kaitlin signed an Athletic Letter of Intent to wrestle at Campbellsville University in Kentucky.
There, she'll wrestle for a women's-only program that, before competing in its first year on the mat, is ranked No. 10 in the nation.
While Fitzpatrick also looked at King College (Bristol, TN), McKendree University (Illinois), and Lindenwood University, (Illinois), she chose the Tigers mainly for its coach, Lee Miracle, a 20-year Navy veteran.
Miracle joined the USA Women's World Team in 2011 as a volunteer coach for the team's trip to the world championships in Hungary and later became an assistant coach for the 2012 championships in Azerbaijan.
"He's going to provide the right atmosphere for me to grow. My goal is to be an Olympian.'
"I really think this coach can help me move forward and onto that level.'
While wrestling is the fastest-growing sport for high school girls, only five states hold high school-sanctioned championships — Washington, Hawaii, California, Texas and Massachusetts. Notice Pennsylvania isn't among that group.
But last year, the Keystone State held its first USA Wrestling-sanctioned all-girls state folkstyle championship at Susquehanna High School. Competing for Women's Only Wrestling (WOW), Kait won a state title in March after taking third last year. In May, she captured state gold in the freestyle championships.
Growing up with a lot of boy cousins, Kait says she was always "hanging out with the boys, wearing boy's clothes, playing roller hockey, competing in Taekwondo tournaments.' Who else but a rough-and-tumble tomboy would take their friend up on a wrestling dare?
Contrary to high school, Kait says, middle school coach Curt Stanley welcomed her with open arms. "They didn't exclude me because of my gender,' she said.
From the beginning, wrestling just seemed to come naturally, she says.
"I was good at it right away; I was quick and strong — the techniques I learned in Taekwondo kind of transferred over so I already had a little bit of a background in it.
"But there's a lot to learn; I'm still playing catch-up.'
While Fitzpatrick gives it her all, wrestling hasn't always paid dividends back to the Yardley teenager. When she first tried out for the team at Pennsbury, she found several obstacles — no, strike that, barricades — standing in her way.
"I was not welcome in the (wrestling) room at all,' she stated, flatly. "I was told I wasn't allowed on the team.'
Instead of quitting, the rejection only served to strengthen Fitzpatrick's resolve toward improving her wrestling game. She signed on with Trevose-based Apache Wrestling Club but she didn't stop there, training with the Elite Club in New Jersey as well as WOW.
Kait says WOW opened up a whole new wrestling world to her. Since joining, she's spanned the lower 48 competing in national competitions and she's not planning on stopping there.
Last year in Oklahoma City at the USA Wrestling Girls Folkstyle Nationals, Fitzpatrick took first place competing in the Girls Cadet 101-pound division.
Fitzpatrick opened with a 5-4 overtime victory over Sierra Blasone of Sparta High School (N.J.). Next, she pinned Big Chief Wrestling's Jirenia Saavedra in the first period. In the final, she decisioned Minnesota's Devyn Johnson 3-1 to win the 101-pound title.
This year, she took second place at the FILA Body Bar Women's National Championships in Lakeland, competing at 108 pounds in the Cadet freestyle division.
Recently, Fitzpatrick qualified for the 2013-14 U.S. National team and practiced at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs in July and again in October in preparation for future competitions in Sweden and Germany.
While present Pennsbury High wrestling coach Phil Kealey took over the program in 2011, Kait says she didn't feel comfortable joining the Falcons as a sophomore.
Things changed enough at the school by her junior year, however — enough that Fitzpatrick not only was comfortable, she felt welcome.
"The team looks up to her and they respect her,' said Kealey.
"She's there to do one thing and that's wrestle. It's not just a novelty to have a girl on the team.
"She comes in and does her job every day — and more.
"She trains harder than anybody.'
Wrestling both varsity and JV matches, Fitzpatrick earned a 3-2 mark on varsity while going 8-1 on the JV level. Some — not all — of those wins were forfeits, victories gained when a boy on the other side of the mat refuses to wrestle Fitzpatrick based on her sex.
"It's unfortunate that we're still in that place where we can't respect what everybody does, no matter their gender,' said Kealey.
"It's only hurting the sport and it's hurting individuals; it doesn't do anyone any benefit.'
During Kealey's time at Pennsbury, the Falcons HAVE come up against female wrestlers, the coach says. Each time, the orange and black has taken the mat.
"If you put somebody out there, we wrestle you,' says Kealey. "If you're going to step on the mat, you're there to wrestle. We're not going to let any of this bias get in the way.'
Sometimes, the forfeits had NOTHING to do with gender, says Kait.
"Some of the forfeits ... it was because they knew me from club and I beat them previously.
"It's because I'm good and even though I worked really hard, still, I'm a girl.'
Kealey loves having Fitzpatrick in the room.
"She's a pistol; she's great to have around. She does everything you ask of her; she's really a benefit to the whole team.
"She's not very outspoken but she leads by example.
"She mixes it up with anybody and everybody; she's not afraid to get in there and battle.'
And now that she's decided to take her game to the next level?
"I couldn't be more proud — just for going down that road; she wants it and she's going to go further than this, I'm sure.'
Somehow, you get the feeling the coach is spot on.
***NOTES: Also today, senior Sajanna Bethea, a power forward and 1,000-point scorer for the Lady Falcons basketball team, signed her commitment to Saint Peter's University (Jersey City). Senior Jeff Yasolonis, a setter for the Falcon boys volleyball team that earned a berth in the 2013 state finals, made official his commitment to Mount Olive College (North Carolina).