From the time she was little, AJ Pennington was a gymnast.
She liked running — cross country and track and field — basketball, and competitive cheerleading as well.
Wrestling wasn’t in the picture.
It is now, though — and in a big way.
“I thought that it was worth a shot,” Pennington, now a senior at Columbus High School, said of a couple friends twisting her arm when she was a sophomore living in Alaska. “After my first competition, I really enjoyed it and never looked back.”
No, she certainly did not.
Not only did Pennington come to love wrestling after what was a rocky initiation, it turns out she’s pretty darn good, too.
The 114-pounder is ranked sixth in that weight class in the state-wide girls rankings compiled by Wisconsin Wrestling Online, and on Saturday at the La Crosse Center she will compete in the first-ever WIAA girls wrestling state tournament.
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Pennington owes her quick mastering of the learning curve to a few different things, but above all else she owes it to her own hard work and dedication.
She didn’t just commit to getting better. She went all in.
“I think I went to three different camps over the summer. I was gone for a month and a half,” she said, also adding that she jumps at any opportunity she can find to get on the mat, including at one of the many area clubs.
Columbus coach Jim Stadler, who has been involved with the program for 30-plus years as either the head coach, an assistant or a volunteer, knows that’s a rare trait.
“She started as a sophomore. We have a lot of kids who do that, so from the standpoint of it being uncommon, it’s not,” he said of her showing an interest in wrestling later in school and not at the youth levels. “What’s uncommon is finding the individuals who are willing to take the time and effort, and probably more importantly the self-discipline, to go and do what it takes to be as good as you are when you become a senior.”
Mission accomplished for Pennington, who has a 5-2 record against other girls this winter and will face Poynette senior Isabella Morales in the preliminaries on Saturday morning.
Success certainly didn’t come right away, though. Not even close.
Pennington, who was born outside Madison (in Oregon) and has lived in northern Wisconsin (Hayward), Idaho and Alaska before her family moved back to Columbus for a second time prior to her junior year, didn’t win for almost two months when she first went out for wrestling as a sophomore in Alaska.
“I got beat up a lot,” she said. “We had tournaments every weekend, we had duals on Wednesdays and I got dragged through the ringer.”
But she stuck with it, in large part because the nature of the sport suited her.
It suits her even more now that she’s truly reaping what she’s sown.
“It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” she said. “Being successful at it is one of the best feelings that I ever had. It’s so difficult sometimes — practices are really hard and when you’re in a match you don’t have teammates to rely on. So going through something so difficult and then having such a good result, it just means more.”
Other than her work ethic, Pennington said her background in gymnastics has also served her well on the mat.
“I’m more flexible, so there are a lot of moves that work on some people that don’t necessarily work on me,” she said. “Also just body control. (One of our coaches) always says, if you can’t control your own body, you can’t control yours and someone else’s.
“I’d like to think I’m very body aware.”
It’s something that Stadler has certainly noticed.
“She moves well and probably has some of the nicest takedowns that I’ve seen in a long time,” he said. “She’s quick and smooth, and most of the time right to the finish.
“After I saw the way she moved, I was like, ‘This kid’s alright.’”
More than alright. In addition to her state ranking and potential good showing at the state tournament this weekend, Pennington also will continue in college, joining the women’s wrestling team at Limestone University in South Carolina.
For the well-traveled senior, seeing a new area of the country was part of her decision.
But it was more than that.
“I’ve lived a lot of places, but I’ve never lived in the South. So location was a big part of it,” she said. “But it’s one of very, very few women’s wrestling programs that have a female coach. I’ve had great male coaches, but at the same time, it’s different — girls and guys wrestling is very different. So as great as a male coach can be, I really wanted to have a female coaching staff.
“I felt like it was where I’d be happiest school-wise, but it was also the best opportunity for me to wrestle for a World Team champion and an Olympian.”
They would be Brandy Green, the Saints head coach, and assistant Lynzie Doll.
The Saints, an NCAA Division II program, are in year three of sponsoring women’s wrestling.
They’ll be getting someone who not only is talented but also sets a good example for her peers.
“She’s definitely a little spark plug,” Stadler said. “She’s always upbeat, she’s always hard working. She’s trying to get people to work, trying to get people involved in the sport. She’s one of the leaders up here. From the get-go she kind of started getting things going as far as the little things — T-shirt orders, and getting everybody going in warm-ups, stuff like that. She’s able to take that initiative and show the other athletes, the younger ones, what it is to be a leader.
“She’s a solid leader and somebody that deserves to be doing what they’re doing — having success.”
Even if it did kind of come out of nowhere.
“Three years ago I never would have thought that this is where I’d be in my life,” Pennington said. “It’s been crazy, but I guess probably a few months after I just started I knew this is where I wanted to be.
“So I’m really thankful that this is where I could get to.”
Follow Dan on Twitter @Danny_Larson_8 or contact him at 920-356-6753.