Brianna Staebler can already call herself a national champion.
Visions of competing in the Olympics occasionally dance through the Whitewater teenager’s head.
But the Whitewater High junior-to-be is not getting ahead of herself.
Staebler won the 16U 180-pound freestyle wrestling national title at the prestigious Junior Nationals in Fargo, North Dakota, earlier this month. And she backed that up by also earning All-America status by taking fourth in the 19U tournament.
But when she talks about her goals moving forward, she speaks only of improving on her own abilities and paving the way for young female wrestlers coming up behind her.
Brianna Staebler was bullied in grade school, she said, and wanted a place to fit in.
By the time she reached fifth grade, she had heard from one of her teachers all about the wrestling feats of her father, Keith Staebler. Keith rebuffed Brianna’s hopes to join a wrestling club in fourth grade, but she brought it back up a year later.
“I pretty much talked to him every single day and annoyed him enough to where he let me do it,” Brianna said.
“He talked about the glory days of wrestling and making all sorts of friends. I was a fifth-grader who was socially outcasted by everyone.
“I was like, ‘I want to do this.’”
At that point, Keith could not refuse.
“When I was in high school, girls didn’t wrestle. Period,” he said. “I graduated in (1988) and wrestled all the way through high school and never saw a female wrestler ever.
“But by fifth grade, she wouldn’t let me forget about it. So I said, ‘Fine, we’ll go.’”
The youth club, then coached by Jeff Markham, was offering a three-week trial, Keith said. He told Brianna she could decide to quit after those three weeks, but if he paid for her to continue on she could not quit.
“By then, I couldn’t have have made her quit if I wanted to,” Keith said.
And that was despite a slew of early defeats. Brianna lost her first 13 matches in a row, almost all against male competitors, but that only drove her desire to get better.
“I kept improving, and that was just so much fun,” she said. “And, heck, I’m connecting to people I maybe never met before … on working on something positive.”
At the youth state tournament, the bracket was for girls only. Brianna beat the other two girls in her class to earn a state title.
Brianna Staebler was hooked on wrestling by sixth grade.
Keith said they met Mukwonago Wrestling Club coach Randy Dusing after winning that first state title, and Brianna began going there to wrestle freestyle—as opposed to folkstyle, which is the style of competition at the high school level.
“She ended up winning three youth state titles, so in seventh grade, we decided, what else is there?” Keith said. “We found out there were nationals, so we went down to Oklahoma, and she won her first national title. And we went down and did that again in eighth grade.
“We started seeing that we’re not the only ones doing this, that there’s a lot bigger picture. We started seeing colleges and looking into that scene.”
Throughout the journey, Brianna has gotten constant support from her dad and mom, Tammy Staebler, as well as her younger sister and her grandparents.
And her growing love for wrestling coincided with a rise in popularity for girls wrestling across the country.
According to the National Wrestling Coaches Association, the number of female high school wrestlers in the nation was 804 in 1994 but had risen all the way to 16,562 in 2018. Eighteen states offer girls high school state championships, though Wisconsin is not one of them.
Women’s wrestling became an Olympic sport in 2004 and has been recommended for the Emerging Sports Status at the NCAA level, where more than 60 colleges currently sponsor a women’s program.
When it comes to freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling, there is no bigger tournament for young wrestlers than the Junior Nationals in Fargo each summer.
Brianna Staebler made her first trek there last year and came away as a Cadet All-American (16U) by taking fifth place.
To her, though, it felt as though she came up short. And she wanted to work at wrestling more than ever.
“I really wanted the cadet national championship and really wanted to place in the juniors,” Brianna said. “This had been my goal for over two years. The first time, when you lose it, it gives you that much more to fight for.
“I lost in the semifinals to the eventual national champion, 3-2, on a penalty point. … So I was that close.”
Brianna wanted to double, or even triple, her workouts in order to achieve her goals this summer. But finding places to practice was often easier said than done.
“Before Fargo, she was wrestling and practicing over four days a week,” Keith said. “Compared to last year, when we couldn’t even find mat time.”
Between last summer and this summer, Brianna worked out: with the Whitewater High program; at Ringers Wrestling Club, which has facilities in Muskego, Mukwonago, Burlington and Menomonee Falls, according to its website; at Badger Regional Training Center in Madison; and at several camps around the state and region.
During the high school season, she was working out five days a week while wrestling at Whitewater High, plus every Sunday for two hours at Ringers in Burlington and an extra four-hour session there every other weekend, as well.
“My favorite part is the practices,” Brianna said. “I don’t care about the tournaments; I want to practice.”
It’s that practice that has led her to so much tournament success.
Staebler won a 16U folkstyle national championship in Oklahoma in March, setting the stage for freestyle in Fargo this summer.
There, at the 16U level, she outscored her first three opponents 22-0 before edging Texas’ Brittyn Corbishley, 3-2, in the finals.
An early loss in the 19U bracket in Fargo left Staebler to fight her way back, and she did just that. She got all the way to the third-place match, where she lost, 10-2, to Jaycee Foeller of Missouri.
“My favorite match of the tournament … was in the blood round, which she won to make her an All-American,” Keith said. “She was constantly in her (opponent’s) face … and never gave her space. By the end, she had broke her.”
“That was my favorite match (too),” Brianna said. “I wrestled her last year and barely won in overtime. This year, coming back and breaking her was just huge.”
Staebler’s 16U title marked the 13th national title won by a Wisconsin girls wrestler at Fargo. All of them have come in the past four years.
Brianna Staebler lays her goals out very simply.
Could the 2019 version of Brianna dominated 2018 Brianna? Absolutely. Now, will 2020 Brianna work hard enough that she would crush this year’s version?
“I want to spend the rest of my life in wrestling,” she said.
At the high school level, that might mean earning a varsity spot or it might not.
“The goal is to not get hurt and to help the team,” Keith said. “We’re not out to prove anything. As far as girls go, she’s probably one of the strongest girls in the country at her age. But compared to boys, she’s below average. And the girls who usually compete against the boys (in high school) are usually at 106 (pounds), and she’s at 170.”
Brianna went roughly 19-6 at the junior varsity level for the Whippets last season.
“She has worked very hard since eighth grade to make her the best that she can be,” Whitewater coach John Schimming said. “She is a great practice partner in our high school program. What I really like is she is always asking questions and wants to get better.
“On top of being a very dedicated wrestler, Brianna is also a very dedicated student. ... All-around great student-athlete to have in the room.”
Staebler has already heard from many college programs, Keith said, and will likely earn some level of athletic scholarship to go with an academic scholarship—making Brianna’s goal of graduating from college debt-free a reality.
And Olympic dreams could become a reality if everything goes according to plan.
“I haven’t necessarily made that a goal, because I know I still have a lot of work to do and I don’t know what’s going to happen in college,” Brianna said. “What if I get hurt or blow out my knee? Who knows?
“But it’s a dream of mine.”
Perhaps a role as a wrestling coach looms down the road, as well.
Brianna already clearly has the desire to put younger wrestlers on the best possible path.
“When I wrestle, I try to think of other people to wrestle for. I feel when I focus on the impact I’m making around me, and all the people looking up on me, it pushes me harder,” she said.
“I think of me in elementary school and how I felt every day—socially isolated, bullied on the playground—and that little girl out there who might be going through something like that. How can I inspire people to do the right things and make way for girls coming up behind me in boys wrestling?”