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Wrestling dreams

Sgt. Conder takes another step toward reaching her goal of wrestling in the Olympics

Whitney Conder, a Puyallup High School graduate, celebrates after winning a gold medal at the Pan American Games in Toronto in July. Photo credit: Nathan Denette

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As Sgt. Whitney Conder walked around the wrestling mat last July, proudly holding the U.S. flag above her head, it was a moment of celebration and fulfillment.

Wrestling for the U.S. Pan American Games team in Canada, at 116 pounds, Conder had just won a gold medal, beating her opponent from Mexico 3-2. At that moment, Conder, a sergeant in the Army, took another giant leap toward realizing a dream she had shared with her Puyallup High School coach, Bryan Bartleson, 10 years ago.

"She said, ‘I'm going to be in the Olympics some day,'" Bartleson said.

And Bartleson's response, seeing the determination in his young wrestler, wasn't of disbelief. He thought, "Yeah, right."

"I said keep working hard and you will," Bartleson said.

Even back then Bartleson could see that Conder wasn't just a dreamer. He saw that she was someone willing to put a shoulder behind a dream, someone who would pursue a goal, not just daydream.

Next year, if Conder makes the U.S. Olympic team, Bartleson will be in the stands at Brazil, cheering.

"I wouldn't miss it," he said.

Conder's journey with wrestling  -  she began wrestling when she was 8-years old and became the first female to place at the Washington state high school wrestling tournament - seems inevitable. Her father, Monte Conder, began a youth wrestling program in Puyallup and today is a wrestling referee. Both her brothers, Nate and Dustin, wrestled. Naturally, the three siblings wrestled each other as kids, often turning their living room into a wrestling mat.

Wrestling is Conder's passion. That became obvious to Aaron Lee, Puyallup High School's current boys wrestling coach, when he saw Conder at the mall. Conder excitedly came up to Lee and wanted to know a good counter move to an arm bar.

"She wanted to know a new move," Lee said with a chuckle. "We were at the mall. That was her dedication."

After high school, Conder wrestled at Northern Michigan University and trained at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. When she graduated from college, she joined the Army and is now a sergeant and on the Army's wrestling team.

In September, Conder, now 27, who is 5-foot-3, faces her next challenge in her pursuit of the Olympics. The 2015 World Wrestling Championships will be in Las Vegas. How she places there will determine whether she'll make the Olympic team and wrestle in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.

Since graduating from high school in 2006, Conder has strung together an impressive resume on the mat, each year placing high at international meets. Last year, she was a silver medalist at the CISM World Military Championships, second in the Klippan Lady Open in Sweden, and ninth at the World Championships. In 2013, she was second at the U.S. World Team Trials and was second in the U.S. World Team Wrestle Off in 2012.

In the semifinals of the recent Pan Am Games, Conder led 6-2 before pinning her opponent from Cuba on her way to her first international gold medal.

"It's amazing to be able to show the country what I can do and be able to show the Army what I can do as well," Condor told a reporter after the match. "This is definitely a good springboard to know that I can beat some of the top (wrestlers)."

Bartleson isn't surprised by Conder's success on the mat. He saw the potential even back when she was in high school, wrestling at 101 pounds.

"I went and watched her wrestle in junior high when she was a champion in our junior high league," Bartleson said. "I heard rumors of this little stud who was going to come wrestle for me and it turned out it was a girl."

Conder was the only girl turning out on Puyallup's team back then and wrestled against boys.

"Whitney tried to lead by example with the boys," Bartleson said. "For example, she always thought ‘I'm going to win and I'm not going to lose. No one was going to be better than me.' She wasn't going to let them be better."

All along, from the days she wrestled on her dad's club team through high school and through college, Conder has had the encouraging family support she needed.

"She has an absolutely supportive family," Bartleson said. "Her older brothers wrestled. Her dad started the Puyallup Falcon Little League wrestling. He's a wrestling referee. They are salt of the earth people. Their word is their bond. They say it, they achieve it. That's how they are."

Conder has never taken her eyes off her dream of reaching the Olympics.    

"As things developed more and more for her, the dream gets closer and closer and more exciting," Bartleson said. "We thought she'd be there four years ago."

All along, Condor has been an inspiration, inspiring other girls to turn out for wrestling.

"I've seen her work," Lee said. "She's a horse. There's a reason she's where she's at. You have to have the determination to do that."

Bartleson's two daughters, who will be wrestling on Puyallup High School's wrestling team this year, watched Conder wrestle.

"They saw her," said Bartleson, who is now the high school's varsity girls wrestling coach. "They saw her determination."

And now that gritty determination could help a young teenaged girl's dream of 10 years ago come true.

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