Whitney Conder has accomplished so much during a career as a trailblazer for women’s wrestling, but the one thing missing is what she has dreamed about for more than two decades: competing in the Olympic Games.
That was the ultimate goal when she had to compete against the boys in middle school and at Puyallup High School. And that has been the goal for more than 10 years as a member of Team USA.
Now at 32, she gets one more chance — probably her final one, she said — when she competes at the U.S. Olympic Trials on Friday and Saturday in Fort Worth, Texas.
“I am pretty excited to go, and get back on the mat, because I haven’t been able to compete in more than a year,” said Conder, who as a sophomore at Puyallup High School, told coach Bryan Bartelson that she would wrestle in the Olympics.
The U.S. wrestling team has been mostly grounded since the start of COVID-19, but Conder has been training every day at the Team USA training center in Colorado Springs. In the last national rankings, which came out more than a year ago, Conder was ranked No. 1 at 50 kilograms (110.2 pounds).
The winning wrestler from each weight class at the Trials earns a berth to the Tokyo Games. Conder’s biggest competition figures to be Sarah Hildebrandt, who was top-ranked at 53 kilograms and dropped down in weight, and Victoria Anthony, who was ranked No. 2 at 50 kilograms.
Conder has big wins already on her résumé. She won a junior world championship title in 2007, a Pan-Am Games gold medal and has six U.S. Open championships.
In 2016, she lost in the 53-kilogram finals at the Olympic Trials. That made her an Olympics alternate, but she did not travel with the team to Rio de Janeiro. She is on a mission to make amends at 50 kilograms — but it’s a mission that really started not long after she first started wrestling at age 8.
Conder was born into a wrestling family. Father Monte wrestled at Snow College in Utah, and older brothers Nate and Dustin competed. Whitney’s brothers would wrestle with her, and unlike her two older sisters, she liked it. Make that loved it.
“I loved it so much that I never wanted to let it go,” she said. “It was something that made me really happy.”
Conder joined a wrestling club that her father started coaching. The determination helped propel her, but there was another key to her success.
“She is very flexible — and she had the dream of being in the Olympics forever,” said Monte Conder. “She learned the moves a lot faster than the boys (in the club).”
Being the rare girl in the sport had its challenges. Some boys refused to wrestle her, and then there were the taunts.
The story the Conder family likes to tell is about the man who told his son before a youth wrestling match that he would give him $5 if he beat the girl, $10 if he pinned her and $20 if he pinned her and made her cry.
Conder pinned the boy, and Whitney’s mother, Sharon, who had overheard the conversation between father and son, asked the man for the $20.
“I never heard that one, it was just my mom, but it wasn’t the first time when things like that happened,” Whitney said. “I would have dads come up to me and say, ‘Go back into the kitchen and make me a sandwich.'”
Once, after she beat a boy in the finals of a high school tournament, a father asked Whitney, “Are you sure you are a girl?”
“I said, ‘Would you like to check with my doctor to find out?'” Conder said. “He definitely didn’t like my answer, and he stormed off.”
Her parents would get calls, chastising them for letting their daughter wrestle. The criticism didn’t faze them.
“She would go out on the mat and literally destroy the kids, and there were some problems,” Monte Conder said. “But as far as parents go, we would just sit in the back and smile because we weren’t on the losing end.”
As a junior, while wrestling against the boys at the state high-school championships in 2005, Conder finished sixth in the 103-pound division, and she was seventh the next year. The sixth-place finish ties her with Camie Yeik of Olympic High School (sixth in 2008 at 103 pounds) as the highest-placed girls in the boys competition.
In 2007, a year after Conder graduated, girl wrestlers had their first state championship tournament. It was also a big year for Conder, who won the junior world championships in Beijing.
“That definitely stands out, because my parents were both there in the stands, and having the flag raised, that was pretty amazing,” she said.
In 2008, Conder joined the national team, training in Colorado and competing worldwide for the country.
Conder joined the Army in 2012 and is a military police officer, balancing that career with her wrestling as a member of the World Class Athletes program.
The primary focus of late has been the Olympics. Her quest was postponed when COVID-19 pushed the Olympics back a year, but there was never a doubt that she would keep going.
“It’s a big deal to make the team for sure, but whatever happens, happens,” she said. “I am leaving it all out on the mat. I am just excited to see what happens. I am in a great position, and I know I can do very well.
“I know I can come out with a win, but it’s a tough weight class and we are all ready to roll. We all want to win it. It’s going to be exciting to see.”
Conder’s parents and brother Nate will be there, cheering loudly.
“I am extremely proud of what she has done and how much she has pushed the sport, and what she has accomplished,” Nate Conder said.
No matter what happens, Whitney Conder, who is one of the oldest members of Team USA, said she is ready to move on. She wants to “get married, have kids, have a family, and a life outside of wrestling.” Not that she hasn’t appreciated wrestling, and seeing the world, at Team USA’s expense.
Conder said her goal is to get a master’s degree in early education/special education.
She was inspired by working with a young wrestler with Down syndrome, “seeing the drive that he had to want to wrestle and understand everything.”
“It was awesome to be able to work with him, and a real growing experience. I want to show kids with special needs that they can do anything in their lives that they put their minds to,” she said.
Conder is proof of what can happen when you put your mind to something. She is thrilled to see how much girls and women’s wrestling has grown. What Conder did helped inspire others, like the daughters of Bartelson — Jordyn and Brooklyn — her high school wrestling coach, who went on to win state titles.
“Being young, I didn’t completely understand (being a trailblazer),” said Conder, who came back to watch the state high-school wrestling championships in 2019 and signed a lot of autographs. “It has been amazing to see the progress. Not only has it grown in the state of Washington, it has grown so much in the world. It’s the fastest growing sport for women.”