Olympian’s Peterson named CIF girls wrestling coach of the year

Olympian coaches, from left Cade Harbin, Chandra Peterson and Levi Harbin proudly display the team’s history-making San Diego Section Division I championship banner.

Girls wrestling as a standalone sport is still in its infancy, especially in South County, but the Olympian High School program took its first big step this season by winning the inaugural Metro Conference and San Diego Section Division I team championships.

The Lady Eagles went on to post a fifth-place team finish at the inaugural San Diego Masters state qualifying tournament Feb. 14 at Steele Canyon High School and advanced two wrestlers —senior 113-pounder Yesenia DeGuire and sophomore 237-pounder Angelina Leal — to the state tournament in Bakersfield.

DeGuire, a three-time state qualifier, earned the school’s first state medal by placing eighth in her weight class.

Olympian’s Chandra Peterson with Division I championship trophy and Trevor Keifer with Division I runner-up trophy.

It was a season of unbounded achievement, one in which head coach Chandra Peterson earned recognition as San Diego Section Coach of the Year.

“I was incredibly surprised and thankful when I learned of the award,” Peterson said. “This award really should be for the entire team and coaching staff. The other two coaches on staff this year — Levi Harbin and Cade Harbin — and myself were all vital members. We wouldn’t have had the season we had this year without all three of us.”

Olympian finished runner-up to Hilltop in the Metro Conference dual meet season but won the team title at the ensuing conference tournament held Jan. 31 at Montgomery High School.

The Lady Eagles recorded three weight class champions and five finalists in the field of 14 weight classes.

Olympian continued its upward curve at the Division I finals at San Ysidro High School on Feb. 8 by recording eight medalists (top four place-finishers in each weight class) in the 33-school field, including two individual champions and three finalists.

“Our coaching philosophy is athlete-centered,” Peterson said. “Every girl is different. Every girl has something different that motivates them than the girl beside her and we drill down what that is for each wrestler and celebrate those differences.

“Our girls got to where they got this year because they are hard workers who all support each other as a family. We had a lot of bumps in the road this year, certainly more than other years, and these girls didn’t let that stop them. I think that not only demonstrates the bright future of our wrestling program, but also the future of our community, when these girls start to graduate and impact our community in other meaningful ways.”

Olympian coaches Chandra Peterson and Cade Harbin offer words of encouragement from the sideline during this year’s Metro Conference girls wrestling tournament. Photo by Phillip Brents

In the beginning
This is the fourth year that Olympian has had a dedicated girls team with a designated coaching staff. Peterson has been with the program since its inception — since eight girls constituted that first team.

Peterson has had to balance coaching with her job as an attorney.

Jesse Perez, now the program coach at San Ysidro High School, served as the head coach of the girls program at Olympian for two years.

“He and I were a good team and our strengths and weaknesses really balanced each other out,” Peterson explained. “Coach Jesse is great with the student-athletes. He’s funny and caring. The kids know he cares — and the girl wrestlers knew that he wanted to be in their corner and wanted them to succeed. I think it was important that they knew he saw them as wrestlers, not girl wrestlers.”

When Perez received an opportunity to coach at San Ysidro last year, Peterson took over the head coaching position at Olympian.

But the coaching staff remained a collaborative effort.

“Thank goodness for coach Levi’s years of experience, because unlike prior years, we had a massive team of girls — some who had never stepped foot on a mat and some (DeGuire) who were going to go on to be the first wrestler to ever place at the state tournament for our school — with all kinds of skills in between.

“His expertise on teaching moves to all various levels and constructing practices that met everyone’s’ needs was exactly what this program needed to blossom. And, of course, Cade coming in and helping us out as well when we realized that two of us just wasn’t enough, was vital.”

The Lady Eagles hoist the championship team trophy after winning the inaugural Metro Conference tournament. Photo by Phillip Brents

Girl power
Peterson brings valuable first-hand experience as a female wrestler to the program. In fact, she has quite a decorated background.

“I started wrestling when I was 8 or 9 years old in Iowa,” Peterson recalled. “It wasn’t long before wrestling became my entire life. I went to two to three wrestling tournaments a week as a kid and when I was in middle school, my mom — bless her heart — started driving me around the country so I could start wrestling girls.

“When I was in school and younger, there was no girls wrestling in Iowa — it is still not sanctioned, but it is growing quite a bit these days. If I wanted to wrestle, I had to wrestle the boys and wrestle the boys I did. I wrestled on my high school boys wrestling team. I was a varsity wrestler on the team all four years.

“When I was in eighth grade, my mom started driving me all over the country to wrestle in state tournaments for women. Within a couple years I had competed in over 20 states and Canada at a world invitational for freestyle.

“My two biggest accomplishments were that in 2003 I was a USGWA national champion and I was an All- American in 2006, placing fifth at Fargo freestyle nationals. I had a nice scholarship to attend Oklahoma City University for the first year of their women’s program but decided only a few weeks prior to classes started that it was time to hang it up. My knee was pretty messed up from my senior year — I had torn some ligaments — and I was really burnt out.”

But she couldn’t leave the sport behind forever.

“For the years I wasn’t involved — in college/law school — I really felt a void in my life that was left when I left the wrestling community,” she said. “I love coaching and feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to do so because it was definitely missing from my life.”

Peterson said the rewards of coaching provide a specific sense of psychological reward.

“I imagine that in every sport it’s amazing to see your athlete start from knowing nothing about the sport, and with the kinds of insecurities kids have when they are freshmen, watching them grow into competent athletes and responsible young adults,” she explained. “With wrestling it feels like so much more, and with girls wrestling even more.

“Society has a lot of expectations of young women. Expectations of how they should act. Expectations of how they should look. Expectations of what they should like to do. When a young woman joins wrestling, she is welcomed into a family who cares nothing about her weight — there is a place for her on the team no matter her size or build. When a young woman joins wrestling, she learns confidence, perseverance, and community.

“Some of the most special moments I’ve had as a coach have nothing to do with wrestling — it’s listening to seniors and alumni council younger girls about things in their personal life that wrestling helped them with and the community of women the program has built to support each other in all things — wrestling and otherwise.

“Of course, there are the butterflies when an athlete like Yesenia wins her match to place at state, but it’s those other moments mean so much as well.”