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She's a Mom and a World Champion: Kristie Marano is a success story on and off the mat

This story originally ran in the USA Wrestler magazine

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - If 8-year-old Kayla Marano ever needs something to take to school for show-and-tell she won't have to look far.

She would have her pick of the whopping seven freestyle wrestling medals her mother, Kristie, has won at the World Championships over the past decade.

She could choose one of mom's two gold medals, won in 2000 and 2003. Or she could pick one of the four silver medals or one bronze medal that she's won while competing at wrestling's most elite level.

Even though she's proud of her mother's accomplishments, Kayla is an aspiring young wrestler who already has goals of her own.

"Kayla wants her own medal, she doesn't want mine," Kristie said with a laugh. "She definitely wants to win her own medal. She's already talked about it."

If Kayla displays the same competitive fire as her mother, she may follow a similar path of success to one of the best women's wrestlers in American history.

Duplicating the phenomenal level of success of a Kristie Marano will take some doing. No American woman has won as many World medals in wrestling.

And she's not done yet.

The 27-year-old Marano hopes to add more hardware to her vast collection when she competes at 72 kg/158.5 pounds at the World Championships on Oct. 1 in Guangzhou, China.

She's competing in the World Championships for the eighth time, but for the first time since 2003 when she won her second World title.

"It feels really good to be back on the team," Marano said. "I'm really motivated to do well at the Worlds and I'm excited to have another shot in an event like this. It was really tough not having an opportunity the last two years."

Being a world-class athlete and a single mother is no easy task.

"It's hard juggling everything and trying to raise my daughter, but it's very rewarding," Kristie said. "Fortunately, I have a lot of help. It's difficult on both of us sometimes when I go overseas to compete, being away from each other for so long."

Having a third-grade daughter keeps everything in perspective for Marano.

"I will go home sometimes after a rough practice and then I see Kayla and she tells me a funny story about school," Kristie said. "She will make me laugh and then you kind of forget about the practice and all your own problems. She's very outgoing and a very lovable kid."

Kayla plays soccer, but she already has developed a passion for wrestling. She has started wrestling and hopes to compete in the Body Bar Nationals next year.

"She loves being around the sport - she loves all the girls on the (Senior-level) team and looks up to each and every one of them," Kristie said. "She definitely knows the sport from being around it so much. I've never really pushed her into wrestling, it's just something she developed an interest in. Whatever sport she chooses, it will be fun to watch her compete.

"We were talking after I wrestled at the Dave Schultz. A bunch of us went out to dinner afterwards and me and my dad were talking about a match and we couldn't remember what I did to get the girl on her back. We couldn't figure it out and then Kayla says, 'You did a crotch lift and put her right to her back.' And that was exactly what I did."

Mother and daughter enjoy bike-riding and kicking the soccer ball around outside. When they are inside an occasional wrestling match breaks out.

"We wrestle around in the house," Kristie said, flashing a smile. "I will take her down and she gets right back up. She doesn't say anything and she just comes right back after me. She's pretty competitive."

Even with her unprecedented level of success, Marano has experienced her share of setbacks.

She narrowly missed making weight at the 2004 Olympic Trials at 63 kg/138.75 pounds. Marano already had clinched a spot in the best-of-3 finals at the Olympic Trials by virtue of winning the U.S. Nationals that year.

"It was heart-wrenching at first - I didn't want anything to do with wrestling after the Olympic Trials," she said. "I kind of got over it with time. I had my day to pout, which was enough, and then I realized I had to get my team ready to go.

"I really don't know what happened at the (Olympic) Trials. A month prior, I had made weight at (U.S.) Nationals. I came super close and missed it by a pound. It was a hard cut and my body just kind of shut down."

Sara McMann, the wrestler Marano pinned in the finals of the 2004 U.S. Nationals, went on to win a silver medal at 63 kilos in a historic Olympics in Athens, Greece. Women's freestyle wrestling became an Olympic sport for the first time in Athens.

Marano actually wrestled at the 2004 Olympic Trials, bumping up to the next highest Olympic class at 158.5 pounds after not making 138.75. She placed second to Toccara Montgomery at 158.5.

Marano did make the trip to Athens as a training partner. It was an experience she says still serves as a motivator in her ongoing quest to compete at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China.

"That would be amazing, to make the next Olympic Team," she said. "It would be at the top of my list as far as accomplishments. I'm going to do whatever it takes in the next two years to get there."

Marano finished second at 147.5 pounds last year in the U.S. World Team Trials to Katie Downing, who won a bronze medal at the World Championships.

Marano has moved up another weight class to 158.5 pounds this year and looked strong in rolling to titles at the U.S. Nationals and U.S. World Team Trials. American Iris Smith is the reigning World champion at 158.5 pounds, but Smith failed to reach the finals of the 2006 U.S. World Team Trials.

"Kristie's very hungry and very driven," said Terry Steiner, USA Wrestling's National Women's Coach. "She wants to make the most of her opportunity this year and I don't expect anything less from her. She's one of the best competitors I've ever been associated with. She's a student of the sport and does whatever we ask her."

The transition to wrestling at 158.5 this year has gone smoothly for Marano, who won four straight World silver medals at 165 pounds from 1996 to 1999.

"Kristie is adjusting to the weight class," Steiner said. "She needs to keep getting bigger and stronger as we get closer to the Olympics. She's working hard in the weight room."

Moving up from 147.5 to 158.5 will help Marano prepare for the 2008 Olympics. Women's wrestling has four Olympic weight classes - 105.5, 121, 138.75 and 158.5.

"I've had a lot of success at 147, but it's not an Olympic weight," Marano said. "That's why I moved up. I want to see how I like 158. So far, it's gone pretty well. I feel real good at this weight class."

Marano competed at 72 kilos during May's World Cup in Japan. She went 2-1, falling 1-0, 4-0 to five-time World champion Kyoko Hamaguchi of Japan. Hamaguchi beat Marano in the finals of the World Championships in 1997, 1998 and 1999. The American team finished third in the 2006 World Cup.

"The World Cup was definitely an eye-opener for us and a good measuring stick for us to see where we are at and what we need to work on," she said. "It was the first time I had competed at that weight and gave me a good feel for what I need to do."

The seven-member U.S. World Team for women's freestyle includes plenty of experience and firepower. Five of the seven wrestlers on the American team have won World medals.

"I'm excited about this team," Marano said. "There hasn't been a team I've been on that I haven't been excited about, but we're real solid in all seven weight classes. This is a good team."

Marano's competitiveness has rubbed off on her teammates.

"I really like Kristie's style of wrestling - she's fun to watch," said Clarissa Chun, a 2000 World Team member who won U.S. Nationals this year. "We come from the same judo background, and she likes to mix it up between shots and throws. She brings a lot of experience and knowledge to the team, and she's won a lot of big matches in her career. It's great to see her back on the World Team again. She's worked hard and she deserves it."

The influence of Steiner also has paid off for Marano.

"Terry's a great coach," she said. "Everybody loves him and respects him. We basically put our trust in him. He's there for you 24 hours a day, and that's awesome."

Marano's judo background has served her well on the mat. The Albany, N.Y., native started competing in judo at age five. She reached the Senior level in judo and qualified for the 1996 U.S. Olympic Trials. She played basketball up until her sophomore year in high school before taking up wrestling at age 16.

"I was playing basketball and my dad was like, 'You're not going to be a 5-foot-5 center, you need to start training for judo.' And he told me to go out for the wrestling team," she said.

Marano excelled in wrestling right away.

"Judo is a big part of my wrestling style and it always will be," she said. "I took my judo skills and adapted them to wrestling."

Her father, Conrad Stenglein, and her brothers, Matt and Joshua, also were wrestlers.

A U.S. Olympic Training Center resident-athlete, Marano said she plans to compete at least through 2008.

"I'm proud of what I've done, but I don't do it for the medals," said Marano, who competes for the New York Athletic Club. "I just do it because I like it. If I decide to wrestle until 2012 or 2016, I will do it because I want to do it. The accomplishments are great, don't get me wrong, but I wrestle because it's fun and it's something I enjoy."

Even though she wants a medal of her own, Kayla Marano is excited to see her mother have an opportunity to pursue another World medal in China.

"Kayla's real proud of what I've accomplished," Kristie said. "She will go to school and say, 'Mom's going to Turkey and then Sweden, and she's going to kick everybody's butt.' She's been around wrestling since she was a baby, so she really likes it. If she sticks with it, she could do really well."


Favorite moment as an athlete: "My best moment was when I won the World title in 2003 in front of family and friends back home in New York. My grandfather got a chance to see me wrestle against girls for the first time. It was an awesome experience. That was my best moment, so far."

Most interesting place you've visited: "I went to Egypt when I was competing in judo. It was pretty cool. I got to ride a camel and I went to the pyramids. Greece was really nice too, when I went over as a training partner for the Olympics. We got to go out to some of the islands, which was pretty neat."

What do you like to do when you're off the mat? "Spend time with my daughter, Kayla. She's 8 years old and just started third grade. We ride bikes or kick the soccer ball around outside. I really enjoy spending time with her and hanging out. And we wrestle around in the house. She's very outgoing and a very lovable kid. She's been around wrestling since she was a baby, so she really likes it."

On competing in China: "It seems like I've been just about everywhere in the World, but I haven't been to China. I always look forward to going new places. I definitely wouldn't be traveling all over if it wasn't for wrestling. It's pretty cool when I think about all the places I've been. I've almost filled up a passport."

On the physical toll wrestling has taken on her body: "I'm not an 18-year-old kid anymore. I never got hurt much when I was younger, but I had ACL surgeries in 2001 and 2003. I have to take better care of myself. I definitely need to be smarter about how I train as I get a little older."

On being a women's wrestler: "Before, people used to have a funny reaction when I told them I was a wrestler. They would say they didn't know girls wrestled. Now, a lot of people think it's pretty cool that I wrestle. Hopefully, women's wrestling can spring to a whole new level."

On women's wrestling becoming an Olympic sport: "I was really excited when I first heard about it. I thought the World Championships were the best we were going to get and then they added it to the Olympics. It was awesome when I found out they were adding it."

On the rigors of World Team training camp: "I haven't been on a World Team in a couple years, so I'm very driven to make sure I'm prepared to compete. Camp can be a grind, and it's tough, but it's what we need to get ready."
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