April is Girls Sports Month, and as part of USA TODAY High School Sports’ fourth-annual Girls Sports Month celebration, we’re speaking with some of the top female high school players, influential athletes, coaches and celebrities in the sports world. We will also be highlighting some of the best stories from the past year and trailblazers in girls sports.
Four years ago, a freshman at Palm Springs High School (Calif.) named Cindy Zepeda told the wrestling coach, Jacob Custer, that she wanted to try wrestling.
There was no girls’ wrestling team, but she figured learning a few wrestling moves would help with her overarching dream of being an MMA fighter.
Custer didn’t know what to make of this pint-sized freshman at the time, but he would never turn away anyone who wanted to get involved in the sport he loved. Zepeda had one request of her new coach.
“I remember I told him I wanted to be an MMA fighter and I asked him ‘Can you help me get there and not let me quit even when I want to quit?’ ” she said. “He basically just told me ‘I got you, let’s do this.’ And I trusted him and I continued to trust him. And now we’re here.”
The “here” Zepeda mentioned refers to the Nationals. Yes, you read that right, the high school wrestling Nationals which took place last weekend in Virginia Beach, Va.
Custer and Zepeda hopped on a plane Wednesday as Zepeda and about a dozen of the top female wrestlers in the nation who dueled in a one-day double-elimination tournament Sunday to determine the best 126-pound wrestler in the United States.
Zepeda finished third.
Her coach said though she’s come a long way, he’s actually not all that surprised.
“It’s not by accident,” he said. “She’s laid the groundwork. She set her goals early, and a lot of people set goals, but not a lot of people follow through and do what’s necessary to achieve them. She’s more motivated and driven than any high schooler I’ve ever known.”
A typical day for Zepeda goes like this:
6 a.m.: Hitting the wrestling room for extra practice with Custer before school
8 a.m.-3 p.m.: School
3-5 p.m.: Regular wrestling practice
5-7 p.m.: Hit the gym for cardio, unless she has a jiu-jitsu lesson on that night
7-9 p.m.: Homework, then as she says “Wake up the next morning and repeat.”
Zepeda earned the right to compete at Nationals by winning the CIF State championship Feb. 23 in Bakersfield. She is the first girl from the desert ever to qualify.
When her hand was raised by the referee to indicate that she was the best in the state of California, she had a message for the crowd.
“Winning the state final was really amazing and at the end, I just screamed at the crowd ‘Keep doubting me!'” she said. “Because no matter how much I keep winning, people continue doubting me, which I don’t mind because I use it as motivation.”
She then ran over to the coach she affectionately just calls “Custer” and jumped into his arms. It was a beautiful moment.
34-0 126lb CIF State Champion! Not pictured are the the staff I truly love, the 5 am workouts, the fights in the room, the unwarranted doubt, and the undeniable work that went into making this happen! But we did it! Together! As a FAMILY! #pswrestling pic.twitter.com/pOGHYrZiXa
— PSHS Wrestling (@PSHSWrestle) February 24, 2019
“I remember — and I never listen to hype music — but I was listening to the song ‘Dreams’ by the Cranberries before that final match and I was just staring at Custer and if felt like a moment. A moment where I was finally about to make everything happen that we had dreamed of,” Zepeda said. “We have our little disagreements here and there, but at the end of the day he’s like my best friend. A father figure. I feel like we are one of the closest athlete-coach compared to what I see at other schools. It’s a real friendship, not just like a coach friendship.”
The next step for Zepeda will be college wresting. She has several schools interested in her and, more importantly, she’s interested in them.
For a long stretch of her career, college wrestling wasn’t part of the plan. She wanted to gain the wrestling skill in high school and then get started working toward her MMA career, but after last year’s state tournament appearance, she started hearing from colleges and that changed her tune. It was something she just never thought about as a possibility.
“Of course, when she started four years ago, there really wasn’t women’s college wrestling out there, so that’s part of it, but she kind of doubted whether she could get into a college, and she wanted to get right into MMA stuff,” Custer said. “But I told her ‘You can always get punched in the face later on, you want to have a degree and have that wrestling background.’ And we looked at how all the best MMA and UFC fighters are wrestlers. She was into the idea.”