By Arnold Lytle
Whitney Conder wants to go to the Rio Olympics. More than that, she wants to win an Olympic medal.
Thanks to her family, her mentors and the United States Army, she may do exactly that … in women’s wrestling.
She is USA Wrestling’s top-ranked woman at 53 kilograms (114.5 pounds), making her a leading contender to represent the United States at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016.
A pioneer since before she entered – and placed – at the 2005 Mat Classic, the annual state high school wrestling tournament at the Tacoma Dome, Whitney has earned the Tacoma Athletic Commission’s 2015 female Athlete of the Year Award for her achievements and for being an outstanding role model in her sport.
“Whitney will be successful in any venture she chooses in life,” says Terry Steiner, coach of the national women’s team for USA Wrestling. “She has a great determination followed by an unbelievable work ethic to back it up.”
Whitney came by her passion for wrestling honestly. It is the family sport for parents Sharon and Monte Conder. Monte wrestled in college in Utah and older brothers Nathan and Dustin won wrestling acclaim in high school. Whitney, the youngest of five – her sisters are Kimberley and Shantel – gets in the wrestling room regularly with children in the youth program her dad started and her brother Nate coaches. That includes mentoring several nephews.
Her path to the Olympics began before girls were regularly included in high school wrestling. Back then, said Bryan Bartelson, who coached Whitney at Puyallup High School, coaches would have their wrestlers forfeit rather than compete against a girl on the mat.
“This was the mindset in the ’80s,” Bartelson said.
Things began to change in the 1990s, he said. But girls were treated like any other athlete, nothing special.
Shortly after he arrived at PHS in 2002, he heard about a tough 101-pound girl who was going for her second straight Junior High League title. She soon would be wrestling for the Vikings.
“Whitney,” he said, “set the standards with high expectations and work ethic,” when she arrived. She won the respect of her teammates by training side-by-side with boys and expecting no special treatment.
She won three letters and twice placed in the state tournament against boys while wrestling at Puyallup, all the while helping girls wrestling gain a toehold.
“I have two daughters who spent every day watching Whitney (in high school),” Bartelson said.
“By watching her they came to believe they could beat anyone who stepped on the mat, boy or girl.”
Whitney was an older sister, a mentor and an icon to his girls, Bartelson said, and now they are on the verge of achieving their own mat dreams.
Whitney’s first stop after high school was Northern Michigan University, where she entered the U.S. Olympic development program and won a Junior World championship.
Then it was on the Colorado Springs, Colo., in 2008 to join the Elite Resident Athlete Program at the U.S. Olympic Training Center.
The competitions and accolades rolled in: Second at the Hargbind International, third in the U.S. World Team trials, second in the junior nationals, third in the Dave Schultz Memorial International, U.S. Open champion. Everything seemed to be building for the 2012 Olympics.
Then a deflating thing happened at the Olympic Trials in Iowa City, Iowa. Whitney, wrestling at 48kg (105.5 pounds), finished fourth and missed the team. Clarissa Chun, who won, brought home a bronze medal from London. It was the Americans’ only medal in women’s wrestling.
“It hurt me to take fourth,” Whitney said, “but it made me want to get better and push myself to get better …”
Now in her third year in the Army’s World Class Athletes Program (WCAP) and at a new weight class, Whitney is taking aim at achieving her Olympic goal. She still trains at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, but now she also reports regularly for training and other duties at nearby Fort Carson.
She continues to sharpen her skills in international competition, winning the Austrian Ladies Open in 2013, placing first at the U.S. World Team Trials last year and winning the U.S. Open championship, also in 2014.
All building toward the Olympic Trials next year, all building toward the athletic goal of a lifetime.
Then there should be more time for leisure and family activities, time to teach those nephews, time to mentor Coach Bartelson’s daughters, time to savor a trail blazed from no girls wrestling to possible Olympic glory.