She’s the first girls wrestling coach in Idaho. But she won’t be the last.

Posted at 4:41 PM, Jan 27, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-27 18:41:43-05

NAMPA, Idaho — Amber Quintana patrols along the edge of the mat in the Columbia High wrestling room before spotting someone struggling with a drill.

She drops down to all fours, fires out her legs and demonstrates how to spin out of an opponent’s grasp. The rookie wrestlers nod in agreement, and Quintana pops back up and offers one bit of parting advice.

“A good wrestler is going to follow you,” she says.

She ought to know.

The 23-year-old Quintana joined the Columbia wrestling staff this season with a mile-long list of accomplishments on the mat, including multiple national titles. Now she’s taking her place as a pioneer in Idaho — the first high school girls wrestling coach in state history.

“I hope that other schools can find a way to get another coach for the girls, whether that’s a female (or not),” Quintana said. “These girls have the right to have another coach.

“They don’t need to be chasing a coach down in another gym, because that’s what usually happens at a tournament. The girls are in one gym, the boys are in the other and now you’ve got these girls running back and forth for their coach.”

High school girls wrestling remains a small, but growing, sport in Idaho. The state saw 218 females enter the weight certification program this season, an all-time high and a 65 percent increase from 132 a year ago.

Coaches throughout the state have pushed the Idaho High School Activities Association to sponsor a separate girls wrestling state tournament. But while waiting for that recognition, Columbia coach Todd Cady has taken growing the sport into his own hands.

He established the state’s first all-girls tournament, the Jaybird Memorial, in 2018. He added a girls division to the state’s largest and most prestigious meet, the Rollie Lane Invite. And when a position on his coaching staff opened up, he used that opportunity to hire a paid coach for his girls team.

He didn’t get any extra money from the school district. Instead, he dedicated one of his three assistant coaching stipends to the girls program.

“Perception is reality,” Cady said. “And we want to make sure the girls are being coached just as hard and are committed to as much as the varsity boys are.”

Cady started hunting the halls of Columbia for a female coach of any sport. He said he didn’t worry about experience with wrestling. He could teach someone the sport.

What he needed was experience working with teenage girls. Basketball and soccer coaches who switch between boys and girls teams often say girls are easier to work with because of their advanced maturity. But Cady admitted he had a blind spot after raising four boys and spending his adult life in a wrestling room with boys.

“Whether you have one or seven or 20 (girls), you’re dealing with a whole set of different rules, expectation, emotions,” said Annie Foster, the women’s director for USA Idaho Wrestling. “… You’re dealing with a whole set of things you don’t really know about.”

Cady didn’t have to hunt far, though. Quintana moved to Nampa with her fiance last spring and started working as a special education paraprofessional at Nampa’s Centennial Elementary.

A decorated high school career in California included two national titles each in freestyle and folkstyle. She then won a college national championship at Southwestern Oregon Community College before finishing her career at Southern Oregon University while also serving as a student manager.

She always wanted to coach, so she jumped at the chance to start molding young wrestlers. But after leading Kuna’s middle school girls program last fall, assuming responsibility for Columbia’s female wrestlers this winter and taking over as the Western Idaho Wrestling Association Women’s Director, she realized she needed to adjust her goals.

“When I came to Idaho, I said, ‘OK, I’m going to make women’s wrestling better here,’ ” Quintana said. “But now I’m like: ‘Oh, shoot. I’ve got to educate people and coaches and athletes about this sport, about the females in this sport.’ And now my mission is just to help promote women’s wrestling and grow the sport.”

Cady said Quintana’s background and experience make her a living role model for experienced female wrestlers and girls starting out in the sport.

“She’s been out there. She’s lived it. She’s done it,” Cady said. “She has been the only girl on a high school team. She has been part of a growing high school team. She traveled the country wrestling high school girls.

“She’s a living example of where we are in Idaho, and where she was in California, trying to help make this thing happen.”

Senior Payton Lanningham blazed the trail at Columbia, becoming the first four-year female wrestler in program history. She started wrestling in sixth grade and has wrestled throughout the county. But in all those years, Quintana represents her first female coach.

Lanningham said it’s no coincidence Columbia has an all-time high of nine girls in its wrestling room this season, enough to support a separate team with its own schedule.

“The new coach brought in more girls, so then there were more girls in the room that understand what it’s like to go through it,” Lanningham said. “It just really helped a lot to have a coach in here that was female. It kind of helped grow that.”

Known affectionately as “Coach Q,” Quintana carries the title of girls coach. But it didn’t take long for the boys on the team to stop her patrols along the edge of the mat and tap into her wealth of knowledge, too.

“I’m not just for the girls. I’m on the Columbia wrestling team,” Quintana said. “I get some boys asking me: ‘Hey, Q. How can I do better on this?’ Or ‘Hey, Q. Can you help me with this today?’

“I’m just another coach to them.”

To read more from Michael Lycklama, check out the Idaho Statesman.

Photo courtesy of Katherine Jones (KJONES@IDAHOSTATESMAN.COM)