By Lee Noles
MONROE – Amber Parker wasn’t expecting much when she decided to wrestle at Parkwood High this year. Why should she? Besides the fact she had never done it before, it wasn’t even her favorite sport. Softball had been at the top of that list since childhood, and her talent was good enough to get her an athletic scholarship to Western Carolina University.
Wrestling, on the other hand, was only supposed to keep Parker in shape for softball, or so she thought.
As her season on the mat unfolded, the highs and lows, success and failures, took her on an emotional roller coaster that culminated in February with Parker winning the first state championship in girls wrestling.
The North Carolina High School Athletic Association voted unanimously in the fall of 2018 to have an invitational tournament on a one-year trial basis to crown a state champion in a variety of weight classes.
“I never knew I would be wrestling let alone accomplishing something I could have never dreamed of,” said Parker, who became the first state champion for the Rebels in the sport since the program started in 1989. “It was just amazing. I still get chills thinking about it.”
Wrestling came almost as a whim after Parker decided to try as many new things as she could during her senior year. One of those experiences included playing for Parkwood’s tennis team for the first time.
“I had maybe stepped foot on a tennis court once before in my entire life,” Parker said.
The quasi-bucket list also had her volunteering for the middle school football program where her brother Andrew is a sixth-grader.
It was also at one of Andrew’s wrestling practices that Parker became interested in the sport. Days later, she emailed Parkwood wrestling coach Chris Linthicum and within a week was working out with the Rebels.
“It was great,” Parker said. “You go to practice and wake up the next day and be so sore. That was awesome.”
Parker’s first match, however, didn’t go the way she had hoped. Because of her long hair, Parker wore a slicker with her headgear so her hair wouldn’t be pulled. The slicker didn’t fit quite right and slipped over her eyes and nose when she lunged at her opponent.
“I couldn’t see or I couldn’t breathe,” Parker said. “I think I was pinned in about 12 seconds. It was awful. At least at the time it was. Now I think it’s kind of funny.”
Parker got better, but with the improvement, also came some tough experiences. She said there were times when people from other schools asked why a girl was wrestling. There were also some wrestlers, who choose to forfeit rather than go against a girl.
“It’s a slap in the face,” Parker said. “But I guess a win is a win… But anything like that just fueled me. It threw gasoline on the fire. It burned me to have a guy shoot down a girl saying they can’t be good in any sport.”
Parker said the support of her teammates helped her through the difficult times. Nearly the entire team made the trip to the state tournament for her, and when Parker looked to the stands before her first match, she saw painted letters spelling her name on each of their shirts.
“It meant everything to me to know they were doing it for me,” Parker said. “It made me teary-eyed knowing I had that support.”
Parker won her first match against Asheboro’s Lindey Otero on points. She then got past Rosman’s Willow Chance in the semifinals when Parker pinned her coming out of a cradle. She said during the match, she was trying to listen to Linthicum shout instructions to her. When she didn’t hear him, she knew it was his way of showing he had confidence in her.
“She knew what to do, and I had faith in her. I have faith in all my kids,” Linthicum said. “I don’t want to be standing in the corner telling them what to do. I want them to figure it out.”
The lead up to the state tournament came with some disappointment after Parker missed two weeks of the season with a concussion. She said it was hard missing that much time but it gave her a chance to scout other wrestlers, including Butler High’s Elisa Cox, who entered the state finals against Parker as the No.1 seed.
Parker prevailed in the match, 9-4, to capture the state title in the 138-pound weight class.
“I hugged my coach. I hugged my teammates,” Parker said. “It made me cry… It was fantastic.”
The school celebrated with more than 50 people waiting when Parker returned. State titles are starting to become an old habit for Parker, who won another when the Rebel softball program captured its championship during her sophomore year. Parker, who plays shortstop and third base, knows her softball career will continue in college, but wrestling is leaving the biggest memory for her now.
“I don’t think I have experienced anything like it,” Parker said. “It’s like losing a best friend. It meant so much to me. I cried for two days after it all ended. I will certainly miss it.”