Faces of Diversity: No guts, no glory
The high school junior stands 5-foot-3. Weighs barely 105 pounds. Looks more like a Pop Warner cheerleader than a high school tailback. Yet listen to the biting words come out of her mouth and you would think she is the biggest kid in school. A real bully.
It isn't an act. Or a tryout for the WWE. It's the confidence of Vanessa Lucero, the New Mexico mighty mite who competes in the sport where she can butt heads with the boys as often as possible: wrestling.
Just last week, wrestling against the top boys in New Mexico at 103 pounds, the 17-year-old junior finished fourth in the state tournament, the second straight year she's placed in the state meet.
It's really nothing new. In three years of high school wrestling, Lucero has watched boys laugh and cry, blush and even puke after a loss. She made national headlines in 2003 after scoring a touchdown in a high school football game, but her nonconformist style has cost her relationships with a handful of girls, but only a few boys, in her hometown of West Las Vegas -- some deteriorating to the point of fistfights.
"She walks very proud. She's very cocky. She doesn't back down from anyone," said Mel Rael, Lucero's wrestling coach at West Las Vegas High. "And some people don't like that."
Growing up, Lucero said she felt more comfortable fetching footballs than dressing dolls. She wore a red Jerry Rice 49ers jersey over anything pink and purple her mom tried to put on her. Instead of wearing her older sister's hand-me-down dresses and skirts, she wore her older brother's old jeans.
Lucero said her older brother and his friends would always pick on her -- until it was time to pick teams for football. Then, she said, they would fight over who would get the tiny, tough-to-tackle girl on their team.
"Sports was the only way they would accept me," she said. "So that's what I played."
Lucero began wrestling in the seventh grade after accepting her cousin's invitation to attend a wrestling camp. Although the majority of the boys outmuscled her, she survived on toughness and the motivation that comes when given a lack of respect.
Rael heard it himself, when he coached against Lucero before taking over the West Las Vegas program last year: "Guys would walk on the mat, 'Oh, I'm going to pound on her.' Then they'd walk off the mat crying."
Last year, wrestling entirely against boys as a 103-pound sophomore, Lucero became the first female in New Mexico history to place in the state high school wrestling championships, finishing sixth. Then came this year's 30-8 record and fourth-place finish.
With success has come greater respect, but losing to a girl still doesn't sit well. During one match two years ago, Lucero said, she grew so bored that she actually started laughing. Her opponent ultimately called timeout, walked off the mat and threw up.
"Most of the time they don't want to get on the bus when they're heading home," she said. "I had one guy tell me he felt like he wanted his mom to come pick him up."
There was a time when Lucero's mom wanted to pick her daughter up, too. Yolanda Mantano-Wood was supportive of the wrestling idea from the beginning, but she freaked the first time she saw her daughter's face planted against a mat, arms tied behind her back. This was her teenage daughter, after all, rolling around on a mat with teenage boys. Hands grabbing here, arms rubbing there. To a mother, it just didn't seem right.
In her three years as a wrestler, Lucero has suffered a strained neck, a dislocated shoulder and a broken rib. But she's also broken the ribs of a competitor. "I felt bad about that," she said.
This year's fourth-place finish leaves her as one of the favorites at 103 pounds next season. Rael said he doesn't see any reason why she can't be the first girl to win a state championship. Beyond that, Lucero's goals are to wrestle in college and the Olympics. Recruiters from all over the West Coast already have begun harassing Rael while the U.S. Olympic Committee has invited Lucero to work out at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., in May.
"She's got that inner fight that's rare in a female," Rael said. "She walks into the wrestling room and her knees are scraped up, her knuckles are bleeding, there's a bruise over her eye. She likes the roughness of scrapping with anybody. It's something you just can't teach."
If wrestling is Lucero's love, football is her hobby. She hasn't played since the 2003 season and probably won't ever again given the potential for injury and the wrestling scholarships that could be at stake. Still, it's a touchdown run -- not a wrestling pin -- that Lucero is best known for.
|FACES OF DIVERSITY|
Black History Month is a time to reflect on the changes that diversity brings to sports. Over the past year, ESPN.com has explored those changes and found it isn't only a matter of black and white:
• Racial harmony: The Linkimers embraced the differences among their family, while remaining indifferent about them.
• Closing the cultural divide: It's more than a seven-hour drive that separates Long Beach Poly and tiny Lee Vining. but students at the schools are closing the gap.
• Friday night fights: In Dearborn, Mich., an all-Arabic football team shows its opponents the way the game was meant to be played.
• No guts, no glory: Vanessa Lucero is out to prove that sports are only for boys until a girl joins in.
• A football melting pot: In Atlanta, football players learn more than X's and O's; they learn how to be American kids, too.
It was the first time a New Mexico female had scored a touchdown in a varsity football game, something that Esquibel told The Associated Press after the game that he had planned all along. "I wanted to show our community that females can play," he said.
At halftime, still wearing her jersey, Lucero was named freshman princess of the homecoming court. "It was one of the greatest nights of my life," she said.
But not everybody agreed. The night that made Lucero a household name, prompting an early morning appearance on "The Today Show," didn't sit well with everyone. Esquibel and the opposing coach that night, Anthony Jaramillo, no longer talk.
"It's kind of a sour story now," Esquibel said. "He was a bit upset. I hope I didn't lose a friend over it."
Jaramillo said he didn't realize it was Lucero who had scored until he saw it in the next morning's paper. Jaramillo already felt like Esquibel had run up the score, and seeing that a girl had scored -- a freshman, no less -- irritated him even further. Then consider that Lucero didn't play in another varsity game that year and, well, the friendship is no more.
"I felt it was a publicity stunt," Jaramillo told ESPN.com. "He was trying to do something to belittle my program and my kids. It was a slap in the face, personally. I don't want to take anything away from the young girl, but I felt he exploited her for his own gain. I feel bad for her."
Two years ago, Lucero missed the football season after failing to receive a doctor's approval in time. She was set to join the team midway through the season when a fight in school with a cheerleader led to her suspension for the rest of the season. She planned on playing last year, but a shoulder injury during summer workouts for wrestling scrapped that idea. Now, her coaches say, she probably won't play again.
"There's just too much at stake," Rael said. "And still, she's only 103 pounds."
With all the attention that Lucero has received, one would think the boys would be jealous. Angry that some girl is stealing their headlines, stepping on their territory. But no, her teammates love her. "She was the leader of my team this year," Rael said.
"I just can't hang with a lot of them," Lucero said. "They're scared by somebody who is different. They're intimidated."
Lucero said she got into a lot of fights growing up, but once she started wrestling in seventh grade, they stopped. Now they've started again.
"I have a short temper," she said of her fight with the cheerleader. "After awhile I just won't take it. And she just kept pushing and pushing and pushing. I lost it."
Then last year, Lucero said, she was getting out of her car at McDonald's when another car pulled up behind her and a girl attacked Lucero. The driver of the car was reaching for a baseball bat when Lucero punched the attacker in the stomach and got away.
Maybe it's the way she walks. Maybe it's the way she talks. Maybe it's just the fact that she's an easy target who rubs people the wrong way. Whatever the reason, she consistently finds herself looking over her shoulder.
"I don't have anything to fight about. There's no point to it," she said. "All I'm going to do is end up getting hurt or hurting somebody. And yet these people want to challenge me. So I have to be more aware. And I am."
Instead of flexing her physical toughness with her muscles, Lucero is hoping she can share it with her mind, as a role model for other teenage girls in the state. She already donates chunks of her free time as a volunteer coach, showing area girls the nuances of wrestling.
The message is a simple one: It's a boy's sport only until a girl joins.
"I wish more girls would try it out because guys got big egos," she said. "They think the girls can't hack it. It's our job to show them they're wrong."
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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