Wrestling on the Kenai Peninsula was celebrated Tuesday at Soldotna High School, with two duel tournaments and the induction of two peninsula wrestlers turned coaches into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
A crowd of well over a hundred people filled tables in the SoHi commons for the induction ceremony. Tela O’Donnell-Bacher, a Homer athlete, Olympian and coach was the first to be honored — for her contribution to wrestling as a sport and culture, especially in regards to advocating for women. Next, long-time Central Kenai Peninsula wrestling coach Neldon Gardner was honored for his 40 years spent as a coach.
Pete Dickinson, a board member of the Alaska Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, said O’Donnell-Bacher and Gardner were the 20th and 21st Alaskans inducted into the Hall of Fame.
O’Donnell-Bacher received the Outstanding American Award and Gardner the Lifetime Service to Wrestling Award.
Dickinson described O’Donnell-Bacher’s career: She won national championships in 1999, 2002 and 2003, then landed the sixth place finish at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece. She is also a founding board member of Wrestle Like a Girl, a national program, that puts on camps and helps promote girls wrestling throughout the United States.
Today, she is still involved in local wrestling as a volunteer assistant coach in Homer, at the high school, the middle school and for club programs.
“Tela is being inducted for her wrestling accomplishments along with something that’s a lot greater,” Dickinson said. “For her dedication in promoting women’s wrestling at every level across the country.”
O’Donnell-Bacher said when she started wrestling, it was a “mixed bag of acceptance.”
She credited others, including Gardner and other previous Alaska inductees of the Hall of Fame, with helping to “make space.”
When she started wrestling, she said she initially had to “remind” the school district of Title IX, but “although that may have been a rough beginning, Alaska has led the country in acceptance.”
The women’s wrestling community, O’Donnell-Bacher said, is growing around 30% every year.
“When you think of it, maybe we don’t call it the women’s wrestling community. It’s called the wrestling community. It’s making wrestling available to everybody, and it’s impacting twice as many lives as it did before.”
Mark Stiller, another board member of the Alaska Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, described Gardner’s career, beginning as a wrestler at Kenai Central High School — where he finished with a record of 88-1, “and the one was a tie.”
Gardner began coaching in 1982 after a collegiate career in Idaho and Utah, while also teaching at Soldotna Middle School until 2006. This year is his 40th consecutive as a coach.
He’s seen four Alaska high school team state titles, three runner-ups, and 46 individual state championship wins — which Stiller said he’s hoping to see become 50 at the state tournament next month.
Gardner coached the state’s only four-time high school state champion, Eli Hutchison — as well as his sister Michaela Hutchison, who in 2006 became the first girl to win a boys state title in the United States.
“Side by side with Tela O’Donnell?” Gardner opened his speech. “You can’t get any better than that.”
He spoke mostly of the 40 years “flown by very, very quickly,” telling stories and describing the way he’s seen the sport change.
Wrestling has gone from the longest season in high school sports to the shortest, and the kids don’t even have to have short hair or shaved faces anymore, he said.
“I’m here coaching kids that I’ve coached their parents,” he said.
Gardner credited his success to a long list of names, coaches and others who have assisted in his career.
“This is a long list, but when people ask me what makes a successful team — you surround yourself with good people,” he said.
“I love the kids, I love the sport, and that’s why I’ve done it for 40 years,” Gardner said. “It’s been a roller-coaster ride, as many people would know. You have your ups and downs, you win some you lose some.”
Gardner closed with the main lessons he said he tries to impart to each of his athletes. “It’s not what you start, it’s what you finish. … Be a student of the sport. … There’s only one thing worse than a bad loser, and that’s a bad winner. … Flip the switch.”
Ahead of the ceremony, Homer and Nikiski each separately challenged the Soldotna Stars in the back-to-back duel meets. Originally, only Homer was scheduled, but SoHi Principal Sarge Truesdell announced during the tournament that Nikiski came to expand the night’s festivities.
Both the Mariners and the Bulldogs have smaller teams, which resulted in Soldotna benefiting from 28 forfeits across the two competitions, as the teams couldn’t field wrestlers to challenge the host.
Beyond the forfeits, Soldotna still proved dominant in the competition, with only three wrestlers managing to take a match off the Stars: Homer’s Saoirse Cook and Nikiski’s Frank St. Denis and Mayaac Schmitt.
Soldotna also took the opportunity to celebrate their 10 seniors with Senior Night festivities: Liam Babitt, Erin Bell, Issac Chavarria, Trinity Donovan, Logan Duyck, Logan Katzenberger, Eddie Land, Scott Michael, Zeek Miller and Hunter Richardson.