This story is from a series in this week’s Beacon called “Undaunted.” The profiles focus on women and girl athletes who are breaking records, stereotypes and barriers from wrestling and judo mats to mountain trails and terrain parks.
The first time Tilynne Vasquez wrestled a girl, when she was 11 years old, the experience was so foreign that she almost locked up with anxiety. Since she was 6 years old, she had been competing against boys, including her all-American and multiple state champion older brother Trae. She had never been able to find a girl, of any age or size, to wrestle in Montana. So she had to go to a tournament in Michigan.
“I was surprised she was so nervous,” her father, Rich, a former collegiate national champion wrestler, recalls of Tilynne’s first showdown against a girl.
Tilynne, now a sophomore at Flathead High School, ultimately overcame her butterflies and won that match. She rarely loses any match, against anyone, anywhere. Earlier this month, she became the highest-placing girl in Montana high school wrestling history when she finished fourth at the Class AA state meet. But that was in folkstyle, which she only does during the high school season against boys and isn’t her strength.
When the Montana state Greco and freestyle tournaments roll around in April, don’t be surprised to see her beat those same boys who finished ahead of her at state. That’s what she did last year when she pinned reigning Class AA 103-pound champion Isaac Romero of Helena High in a Greco match.
And these days, when she lines up against girls, it’s the opponent who should have butterflies. As a freshman last year, Tilynne, or “Ti,” finished second at 108 pounds in the United World Wrestling (UWW) Cadet National Championship tournament in Texas to qualify for the USA Wrestling World Team.
As a member of the national team, she traveled to Buenos Aires, Argentina in July for the Cadet Pan-American Championships. She walked away with the gold medal, beating top-ranked wrestlers from Argentina, Mexico and Canada.
“It was the craziest experience,” Tilynne said. “I’m so thankful for the opportunity. I grew a lot.”
Already, as a sophomore, Vasquez can say she’s one of the best wrestlers in the world for her age as a simple matter of fact, without gloating. But she wouldn’t say that. Down-to-earth and polite, she lets her wrestling speak for itself, and it may speak loudly enough to one day reach the ears of Olympic coaches.
“She’s on that path,” Rich says, while adding that she’s focused on more immediate tournaments, which could serve as building blocks to the Olympics down the road.
Women’s wrestling is one of the fastest-growing sports in the country, and while anecdotal evidence suggests more girls are participating in Montana, it hasn’t caught fire here. The state doesn’t have sanctioned girls wrestling, but this year’s all-class state meet featured six girls, more than in past years, among the hundreds of boys, highlighted by the first-ever all-female state match in a Class B/C showdown between Chinook’s Rebecca Stroh and Jefferson High’s Emma Brown.
Entering the state tourney, Tilynne only had six varsity matches under her belt for the season because she had been focusing on non-high school competition and training. Given that the rest of the year she wrestles freestyle, and occasionally Greco, it makes sense to de-emphasize the high school folkstyle season. Then again, it’s a delicate balance, because wrestling boys is good practice, and she wants to win a state title.
Tilynne follows a strict year-round weightlifting regimen, which she credits with closing the power gap between male counterparts. In fact, she no longer thinks strength is a disadvantage against boys as it once was; now it’s mainly a size issue.
At maybe 5 feet 1 inch, Tilynne often goes up against boys who weigh the same but are several inches taller, meaning they also have longer limbs, which is especially advantageous in folkstyle. Meanwhile, in Greco-Roman, which disallows holds below the waist and emphasizes upper-body action, Tilynne’s raw strength shines through.
“I wish they had Greco for girls, because I think that’s her best,” Rich said, joking that it’s not a coincidence that “Ti” is titanium’s symbol on the periodic table.
The Vasquez family is exceptionally tight-knit, and they credit wrestling with cementing their bond, filtering down from Rich to Trae to Ti to the youngest brother, 13-year-old Teegan, who the whole family agrees will be the best wrestler of them all. They travel to tournaments together around the country and world, or constantly text and call each other if one can’t make it. They finish each other’s sentences without missing a beat, and they keep their ever-growing collection of medals together, a unified gleaming front.
“We want the best for each other; it’s not competition,” Tilynne said. “We push each other but we don’t compare accolades. It’s out of love.”
None of which means they take it easy when training against each other.
“When I need someone to beat the crap out of me, I go to Trae,” Tilynne said of her older brother, who has won two Class AA state titles, including an undefeated season, and finished in second place at nationals like his sister. “It’s hard but it refocuses me.”
This May, Tilynne will be gunning to again make the USA Wrestling team at the UWW national championship, although this time she wants to finish first. Then she would have a chance to defend her gold at the Pan-American Championships, where she will not only be proudly representing her family, but her country as well.
“Going to represent my country was awesome,” she said of last year’s Pan-American games. “I kept thinking, ‘I just want to represent my country and my state well.’ I think having that pride pushed me to the gold.”