Nooksack Valley girls' wrestler Chloe Gardner, three years ago, was a decision away from experiencing this year's Mat Classic in a much different capacity.
Before Gardner's sophomore year, Pioneers wrestler and coach Chad Parson's daughter, Alex Parson, approached Gardner with a proposition.
"At first, his daughter, Alex, asked me if I would be a manager," Gardner said in a phone interview. "I sat down with my mom and dad and said I wanted to do this for the team, and they said, 'Do you really want to pick up blood and puke off the mat? How about you wrestle?' I said, 'sure.'"
And Gardner's meteoric rise to the pinnacle of girls' wrestling began.
Gardner, when she started, never anticipated she'd eventually become a state champion, but Chad always knew her innate strength and work ethic could amount to something special.
"Chloe comes from a very competitive family," Chad explained in a phone interview. "Her and her brother are always signing up for 5Ks, and she's very involved in fastpitch. When you take a student-athlete like that and bring them into an elite sport like wrestling, she looks at it and is naturally going to want to be a part of that."
Gardner's seemingly instant success translated to a fourth-place state medal her first year, a third-place medal last winter and she capped her career with a 145-pound state championship at Mat Classic XXVI, giving Whatcom County its lone girls' state champion.
Gardner's title run was as impressive as her quick rise in the sport, pinning all four state tournament opponents. For her accomplishments, the Nooksack Valley senior has been selected The Bellingham Herald's Girls' Wrestler of the Year. Chad, who guided Gardner to the title and helped the Pioneers, with only four state wrestlers, earn a county-best eighth-place finish with 55 points, has been selected Coach of the Year.
In a sport that, for most, takes years to master, Gardner said she spent her first two years learning technique. She truly flourished this season.
"I was able to take a win and learn from it and do everything I could to take me to the next level," Gardner said.
She won tournament titles at Regionals, Sub-Regionals, Northwest Conference and only suffered two defeats, and at state her three years of hard work came to fruition.
She only needed 5 minutes, 13 seconds of mat time to pin her first three opponents and advance to the 145-pound championship. Gardner admitted, while she often employed a front headlock as her go-to move, she always relied on sheer strength to beat opponents when her moves weren't working.
Gardner and the Pioneers' coaches put together a perfect gameplan for her title match against Enumclaw's Danielle Cormier, who was arguably the strongest opponent Gardner has faced during her career.
"What we knew about her opponent was she hadn't gone all three rounds," Chad said. "She was good and strong and fast, but no one had taken her to the third round, so that was definitely the goal. She got here there, and that's when Chloe took over."
The win was history making. Gardner became Nooksack Valley's first-ever girls' wrestling champion, and she remembers a special moment she shared with Chad following the match.
"Right after I won the championship, he walked over to me and told me this is a moment we can share forever, and I will never forget that," Gardner said. "It was a proud feeling to learn what I have from Coach Parson and to win the championship."
Not only did Gardner make a personal transformation into a state champ, she played one of the leading roles in the development of Nooksack Valley's girls' wrestling program.
She was one of five girls' wrestlers as a sophomore. Chad said the group was called the Fabulous Five. The Pioneers started with 21 wrestlers last winter, and undoubtedly Gardner's success will only drive more girls to the growing program.
"Because of what Chloe did and what the other girls did at state - three girls placing in the top seven - that has brought excitement into the hallways," Chad said.
Even though Gardner won a state title, she said life hasn't changed much, with an exception to friends and teachers addressing her as "champ" at school.
But while Gardner said she was thrilled to represent her school on such a grand stage, she was pleased she could obtain such a lofty personal objective.
"Mostly, I just wanted to win a state championship for myself," she said. "What a great accomplishment to be able to do that and have my name and my school (listed as a state champion). It was great."
Reach Andrew Lang at email@example.com or call 360-756-2862. Follow @bhamsports on Twitter for Whatcom County sports updates.
Past All-Whatcom County Girls' Wrestlers of the Year
2013-14: Chloe Gardner, Nooksack Valley
2012-13: Aysha Schwinden, Mount Baker
2011-12: Kara Ebergson, Squalicum
2010-11: Raney Lepper, Mount Baker
2009-10: Katie Wiebe, Mount Baker
2008-09: Chloe Grafwallner, Mount Baker
2007-08: Ashlee Phy, Mount Baker
Reach ANDREW LANG at firstname.lastname@example.org or call ext. 862.