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Magnolia's Elleni Ortega thrives on wrestling mat
ANAHEIM – Elleni Ortega remembers being incredibly nervous before competing in her first high school wrestling match.
"I remember my hands were in front of me, and they were shaking so much," recalled Ortega, now a senior at Magnolia. "At the same time I was thinking, 'I've been practicing. He's at the same level I am, so I just can't let him win.'
"I'm very competitive. I don't like losing."
Ortega, still a novice at her newfound craft, was wrestling a 113-pound male from Cypress High.
What ensued paved the way for a prep career like few before it.
"I couldn't believe that I was going against a guy," said Ortega, whose opponent that afternoon happened to be an old friend from junior high. "Then I pinned him! I was shocked. He was shocked.
"After that first match, I knew that wrestling was what I wanted to do."
Ortega – one of the first female wrestlers in school history – went on to place second in her weight class in the tournament that weekend.
From that point on, her coach knew he has something special on his hands.
"She wants to be the champion," Sentinels coach Ed Nelson said. "She wants to be No. 1. She wants to be the best. It's a challenge to her."
Her attitude, desire and success soon inspired other girls to begin wrestling at Magnolia.
"We're up to nine girls on the team right now, and it's a direct result of Elleni," said Nelson, who named Ortega captain of the girls squad. "She's just phenomenal."
Two months prior to her first triumph, Ortega watched from the perimeter of Magnolia's wrestling room as her older brother, Luis, plodded through daily practices.
"I would come (to practices) and he (Luis) wouldn't even be there sometimes," said Ortega. "Coach Ed (Nelson) finally told me one day, 'You're here more often than your brother. Why don't you try it out?' "
Within days, Nelson bought Ortega – a 5-foot, 105-pound ninth-grader with pink bangs at the time – her first pair of wrestling shoes. A kids size four.
"He told me that I was going to be on the team until my shoes wore out," she recalled.
A multi-sport athlete – soccer, basketball, flag football, swimming – Ortega's introduction to wrestling and the sport's four-hour practices challenged her resolve.
"I would come out dying," said Ortega, who spent her first two seasons alternating between the frosh/soph and junior varsity teams. "I would throw up during practice, because my body wasn't used to it. ... Then I got used to it, and I thought maybe practice was getting easier, but it wasn't."
Ortega regularly competed in practice against the school's top wrestlers.
"I would wrestle the varsity guys and they would beat on me," she said. "At first they were shy about it, but coach told them that they had to wrestle me like any other wrestler."
By finishing eighth in the CIF-Southern Section 108-weight class her sophomore year, mostly against boys, Ortega was one of 12 qualifiers from the Southern Section to reach the inaugural Girls' Wrestling State Invitational – a tournament implemented in 2011 by the CIF State Office. As a junior, she qualified for the state tournament once again, but a broken bone in her hand kept her out.
"I was clueless," Ortega said of that first season at the state invitational. "I just showed up and didn't know what to do, where to go, but I got through it."
With the regular season coming to an end, she is likely to make a third consecutive trip to the postseason. She is also moving closer to the end of this chapter of her life as she'll soon move on to college.
"I'll remember my achievements, and what I've done," said Ortega, who plans to double-major in biology and photography or journalism in college and might wrestle at that level.
"I really like wrestling. I guess you could say it's my whole life."
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