When she was 6 years old, soon-to-be Fort Osage freshman Haley Ward went with her father Anthony to wrestling practices.
He was in charge of a youth wrestling program called Jackson County Wrestling, and Haley worked out with the team but wouldn’t actually wrestle. She later decided she wanted to wrestle with the boys.
Anthony didn’t want her to at first because he was unsure that she could handle it. He eventually struck a deal with Haley, and it turned out to be a good one.
“I asked him if I could wrestle and he said, ‘Oh no, you can’t wrestle.’ Not many girls did wrestle at that time. I kept bugging him about it because he kept having me go there and work out.
“He finally had me practice with the boys and he said, ‘OK. If you don’t cry, you can.’”
She didn’t cry. In fact, in her first tournament, she won a division that had all boys aside from her. Ever since then, Haley has made a name for herself in the youth wrestling world and she continued to do so at the U.S. Marine Corps Cadet and Junior National Championships in Fargo, N.D., July 12-19.
She finished second to take All-America honors in the 127-pound, 16-and-under women’s division, losing the championship bout by criteria in a 2-2 tie to Karina Blades of Illinois. Haley didn’t surrender a single point in that match, and she lost because her opponent scored the final two points.
“I thought I did pretty well,” said Ward, a 14-year-old who was wrestling against 15- and 16-year-olds. “I knew when I went up there, it was going to be a tough time. I knew I was going to have to work really, really hard to get where we are going.
“I wrestled her before and I knew that (championship) was going to be tough because I lost to her by a lot more last time. I did improve and that was good. She’s one of the best wrestlers in the country.”
Fort Osage coach Brandon Wackerman, who will get to coach her this winter, had high expectations for Ward.
“My expectations were that she would be an All-American,” he said. “I had an idea what the national field looks like and she had already wrestled multiple years. She’s been competing at a high level like this for some time. I wasn’t surprised at all.”
Haley not only did well there, but she also will wrestle at the Pan-American Games in October. She qualified after finishing second at the Women’s Under-19 World Team Trials in June at Irving Texas.
She made it to the championship match and fell to Pennsylvania’s Reese Larramendy by fall. She also won a large tournament, the Las Vegas Open, earlier in the year. Because of that she got to train at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“I’ll be going there in October, too, before I leave for Panama,” she said of going to the Olympic Training Center. “I saw a lot of good wrestlers there and I saw what it really takes to get there. It was a really great experience.”
Now that she’ll be entering high school this year, she will compete for the Fort Osage varsity team this winter, and she’s someone who can make an immediate impact, Wackerman said.
“It’s exciting. We have a lot of great girls to work with last year, and she adds to that mixture,” Wackerman said. “We will have the opportunity to make her better and get her where she wants to go.
“It’s great to coach a wrestler of that caliber. She’s going to help raise the program as a whole to another level.”
With the Indians, she not only wants to win a state title in the girls division, but wants to wrestle against boys during the regular season.
“I can do a few tournaments competing with boys,” she said. “I want to see how well that goes. I’ve competed against boys and I know high school boys is tougher than high school girls. I am looking forward to competing with them because I do train with high school boys.”
But high school success would just be the beginning for the 14-year-old as she has big goals.
“I want to make it to the Olympics,” Ward said. “I think I have a good shot. I want to also win (at the Women’s World Team Trials) and make it on the USA World Team.”
Wackerman said he has no doubt she can accomplish that feat.
“She’s got a very high ceiling,” he said. “We aren’t quite recognizing where that is yet. She’s challenging the best girls in the world right now before she has even entered high school. She will be a name that people who follow women’s wrestling recognizes.”