Before she became a national champion, Doane University wrestler grappled with depression, doubt

You can still win, coach Dana Vote told his star grappler. 

In her two seasons at Doane University, Cristelle Rodriguez became known for aggression, for overpowering her opponents, dominating them.

But before thousands of fans at the Bryce Jordan Center in State College, Pennsylvania, with a chance to represent the U.S. at the upcoming Olympics on the line, Rodriguez wrestled uncharacteristically passive.

Vote’s encouraging words came between periods. If anyone could muster a comeback, it was Rodriguez.

Four years earlier, the 19-year-old was a sophomore on a meteoric rise at a powerhouse California high school. Then came a pandemic, depression, apathy, dark days that Rodriguez wasn’t sure she’d escape. She quit wrestling, abandoned her Olympic dreams.

The Doane sophomore returned to the middle of the mat in her orange, white and black singlet – the colors of the one school willing to take a chance on her. Rodriguez was the underdog. Her opponent was older and more experienced.

The pressure overwhelmed Rodriguez in the opening period.

But she could wrestle on muscle memory in the second period, this new second chance she felt determined to make good on. She brushed her knuckles against the mat. The referee blew his whistle, and she seized her opponent.

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Cristelle Rodriguez remembers being bored watching her brother at wrestling practice when she was 6. But her father, Saul, told her she couldn’t join – wrestling is a boy’s sport, he said. 

It’s also a big deal in this Fresno-area school district. Longtime superintendent Floyd “Doc” Buchanan stressed sports and extracurriculars as a means to reduce crime and boost academic performance.

“His whole philosophy to the gang program was sports,” said Chris Hansen, an assistant wrestling coach at Buchanan High School, named after the visionary. “So that’s a big deal here.”

The district has won 24 total state wrestling championships, including 12 consecutive until this past fall. 

Three years after being told wrestling was a boys sport, Cristelle saw an opportunity when there weren’t enough wrestlers at practice. “I can be the dummy,” she suggested. Her father nodded.

She felt at home on the mat. It made sense to her. And she liked the physicality.

“I really liked how it was individual,” she said. “It’s my hard work, my dedication to the sport to get me to where I am.”

Doane University sophomore Cristelle Rodriguez capped her undefeated 2024 wrestling season by winning the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics championship in March. Earlier in May she was named the Doane University Female Athlete of the Year. Photo courtesy of Doane Athletics

Before starting high school she won the U15 Pan American Championships – making her the best wrestler under 15 years old in her weight class in North and South America – without conceding a point.

Rodriguez often wrestled boys. Some of them wanted to prove a point.

“We were kind of beating her up a little bit but she would never give up and she would fight really hard,” said Michael Gioffre, a Buchanan High graduate who now wrestles at the University of Virginia. “I’ve never wrestled a girl like that. She wouldn’t quit.”

The time he wrestled Rodriguez at a tournament is seared into Hansen’s memory. Despite their size inequity, Rodriguez went at him. She worked Gioffre’s legs, causing him to stumble backward. A near takedown. The gym echoed with an “OHHHH!”

Gioffre steadied and threw Rodriguez into the scorer’s desk. They reset and continued.

“When I say ‘it was an a** whoopin,’ it was an a** whoopin. … He put it on her for the next five minutes,” Hansen said. “She just walked off and didn’t cry. That’s when I knew she was tough.”

Rodriguez became the first female wrestler at Buchanan High School, where she continued occasionally wrestling boys. She made history as the first girl in the district to win the state girls’ championship. The City of Clovis recognized her after she won the 2019 Cadet World Championship in Bulgaria.

She became a local legend. 

“These young girls would come up and get her autograph and take pictures with her and she really has embraced it and, for this area, she has really helped girls’ wrestling,” Hansen said.

Participation in girls’ wrestling nationwide has quintupled in the last decade, including a massive 60% spike in the last academic year, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. 

In Nebraska, participation rose from 700 in its first year to 1,700 last winter, its third season.


Six daily hours of practice gave Rodriguez little time to heal from lingering injuries. Despite knee pain and a rib that routinely popped out of place in her back, Rodriguez repeated as state champion at 111 pounds as a sophomore.

“I guess there was so much pressure on me that it was expected to happen,” Rodriguez remembered. “Once I did it, it was like, ‘OK what’s the next thing to achieve?’”

Two weeks after that title bout, California closed schools in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rodriguez continued training at first, but when competitions started getting canceled she lost all motivation. She was running on fumes – mentally and physically – prior to the pandemic. Lockdown brought her to a halt.

“My body was broken, my soul was broken,” she said. “Mentally, I just wasn’t there anymore. I lost the love for the sport. I hated it. I hated having to work this hard for this sport.”

Rodriguez described her junior and senior years of high school as a dark cave she couldn’t escape. She was diagnosed with depression.

The A’s she worked hard to maintain in school dropped. Hansen couldn’t hide his disappointment. He told her wrestling would one day end and she’d need an education. She wasn’t ready to listen.

“I think COVID ruined everybody,” Hansen said. “I still see it. It’s thrown people off. It isolated them and that was it.”

She spent her days on the couch and nights with friends on the same streets Doc Buchanan wanted to keep kids like her away from. She felt regret and fell further out of wrestling shape. She turned her back on God, she said. 

Karina Vang was one of Rodriguez’s lone connections to the wrestling world. They met through wrestling and their shared passion molded them into best friends. 

Doane University sophomore Cristelle Rodriguez easily won the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference championship in February. Next year the Doane women will wrestle in the Great Plains Athletic Conference. Photo courtesy of Doane Athletics

Neither thought they’d wrestle in college because resources just weren’t there. Only 146 college programs at any level sponsor women’s wrestling, as opposed to 395 men’s programs.

Then Vang received a wrestling offer from a small liberal arts college with an upstart program in Nebraska.

Doane University President Roger Hughes spearheaded the addition of women’s wrestling in response to the massive rise in high school participation. Vote, already the men’s coach, advocated for resources. The Doane Board of Trustees signed off on it in 2021, with competition starting the following year.

Vang was initially skeptical of joining a new wrestling program but trusted Vote. She dropped hints that Rodriguez should go to college.

“I know she can be so successful, and it made me kind of sad to see that maybe she is just done,” Vang said. “Like, she’s given it all up and she’s done.”

Vote reached out to Rodriguez’s parents. After two years divorced from the sport, Rodriguez didn’t believe anyone seriously wanted her.

Vote convinced her otherwise. She committed to wrestle at Doane over the phone without researching the university. She cried during much of the 1,250-mile drive.


Getting to Doane was only the start.

Rodriguez, now hundreds of miles from her family, needed a support system. 

“We forced building a foundation of being happy and being aware of our situation and making sure we’re grounded in all aspects,” Vote said. “And I told her the wrestling will take care of itself.”

She eased into workouts before the season arrived. When winter came, she made every excuse to get out of wrestling. What if she hurt her knee again? What if her rib popped out of place again? What if she wasn’t good anymore?

Don’t worry about the results, Vote told her. 

Nerves nearly overwhelmed her. She was wrestling women now – not the high school girls she easily overpowered.

But she won that first meet easily and continued dominating opponents throughout the season, right up until the NAIA national college tournament.

That’s where Rodriguez’s fairytale return crashed into reality in the form of the defending national champion and the first loss of her collegiate career. Rodriguez ran to the hallway and sobbed.

“I hate wrestling!” she screamed between tears and expletives.

Vote reminded her of the consolation matches. Redemption was possible, he said, but she’d have to pick herself up.

Cristelle Rodriguez cruised through her sophomore season as the top-ranked 123-pound wrestler in the country. The 19-year-old Doane University student earned a spot wrestling for the U.S. at the Under-20 World Championships in Spain this fall. Photo courtesy of Doane Athletics

“I can tell you walking out of that tunnel with her after she lost was a life-changing experience for her,” Vote said. “And to turn around to win two matches and get third showed a lot of growth that she still has fight.”

Rodriguez got serious in the offseason. She worked with a nutritionist, who convinced her to drop the hot fries and chorizo burritos. 

She wrestled at 132 pounds her freshman year. Dietary change and two-a-day practices got her to her target weight of 123 pounds. 

She became more comfortable at Doane, where the smaller class sizes helped her maintain grades, and she became an Academic All-American. Rodriguez said she also reaffirmed her faith.

She cruised through her sophomore season as the top-ranked 123-pound wrestler in the country. She easily won the conference and entered the national tournament as the top seed, determined to overcome the previous disappointment. 

She dominated her bracket with no match lasting two minutes, and finished the year 23-0. Rodriguez was named wrestler of the national tournament and became Doane’s first undefeated national champion. 

She also qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials last month after finishing fourth at the U.S. Senior Nationals.

“The thing about Cristelle,” Vote said, “is that she’s a competitor and she’s a winner and I don’t have to do a lot but guide her … She’s in here putting the work in.”


Rodriguez was in that dark place during the last Olympic wrestling cycle. This time, the 19-year-old walked into the raucous arena with a chance to fulfill her long-held dream.

Cristelle Rodriguez has long dreamed of wrestling for the U.S. Olympic team. Photo courtesy of Doane Athletics

“It’s just a little butterfly in your stomach like ‘I made it this time,’” Rodriguez said. “It’s not guaranteed every year because there’s just so much competition in the U.S., so you just have to take it all in when you are able to make the team or have USA gear.”

She controlled her first match and won.

She rallied after falling behind her quarterfinal opponent, No. 2 seed and decorated American wrestler Amanda Martinez, to win and advance to the semifinals.

That’s where she found herself down at halftime to Abigail Nette, a 27-year-old U.S. Army specialist and former national champion.

Rodriguez cut into the deficit but ultimately couldn’t overtake Nette. She finished fourth behind three older wrestlers, including a 2020 Olympian. 

She will have to wait another four years to try to make the Olympic squad.

Meanwhile, Rodriguez earned a spot wrestling for the U.S. at the Under-20 World Championships in Spain this fall, her third age-level world championship.

Doane and Crete have become a second home to her. She called it a blessing to be a Doane Tiger and compete at the highest stage of American wrestling.

“It keeps me tame,” she said with a smile. “I feel like I’d be crazy without wrestling.”

By Brady Oltmans

Brady Oltmans is a native of Nelson with over a decade in journalism covering sports and news. He started part-time at the Lincoln Journal Star and was most recently a staff beat reporter for Nebraska Cornhuskers football and recruiting. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, Associated Press, Seattle Times and beyond. Brady enjoys telling stories of his home state when he's not walking his dog.


Great story! Covers her long journey, its ups and downs, and she still has her sights set on big goals. Well written!



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