Samantha Fee crouches in her stance. Her light auburn hair bobs. Her hands gyrate. The whistle blows. The Missouri Valley College sophomore coils like a snake poised for a strike on this evening in late January.
Her victim is Oklahoma City University's Samantha Phillips, who overcame Fee in the final seconds at a tournament two weeks earlier in Iowa. But Fee does not yield tonight. She dictates the match with her deceptive quickness and honed technique. She wins without giving up a point.
DUAL: When two teams compete for the ultimate victory.
MATCH: When the contestants oppose each other to earn points.
PIN: Holding the opponent on his or her back with one or both shoulders touching the mat for two seconds. It determines the winner of the match, awarding a team six points.
TAKE DOWN: Placing and controlling the opponent on the mat earns two points.
ESCAPE: Getting out of or reaching a neutral position from a take down earns one point.
REVERSAL: Gaining control of your opponent from a submissive position earns two points.
WEIGH-IN: The official record of a wrestler's weight at the beginning of a match to guarantee he or she can compete fairly in his or her weight class.
Fee learned from her previous loss. Like any wrestler, she practiced how to counter her opponent's inevitable attacks.
All wrestlers will fall in a match. But the recovery determines the result. Do you succumb to the pin, your shoulders pressed to the mat? Or do you escape from that precarious position in one second after countless hours and hours of practice?
Persistence propelled Fee to the mat in Blairstown, N.J. Like many female wrestlers, she was raised around the sport. Her father, brothers and cousins all wrestled. The "big-time tomboy" always got dirty and hurt. She liked to wear jeans, a T-shirt and boots. She didn't put on a skirt until her sophomore year of high school.
When she was 8, Fee tagged along to her cousin's practices. But watching did not satisfy her. It stoked her desire.
She pestered her father, David. He resisted, but eventually relented after a year. After watching her first practice, he was convinced. He took his daughter to buy a pair of wrestling shoes - a pair of green and black Asics.
Fee was the only girl on the Blairstown team. She had a winning record in elementary school.
But puberty strikes in middle school. The strength of boys grows more than that of girls .
That disparity hampered Fee. She didn't win a single match in seventh grade. But that made her more determined. She spent more time lifting weights.
The struggles continued when she reached North Warren Regional High School. The defeats mounted.
But one morning, she experienced the ultimate loss.
• • •
Each day began with a ritual when Fee was growing up: her father's comforting knock woke her up.
But one morning, when Fee was a sophomore in high school, the door pounded. Her brother, Michael, was frantic. "Wake up, wake up," he said.
Fee was in a stupor. She threw on some clothes and moseyed to the garage to grab something she needed.
When she came back in the house, terror unsettled her. Her brother screamed. She had never heard him make such an alarming sound.
She rushed to the bathroom. Her father was splayed on the tile floor. His 6-foot-2, 250-pound frame was lifeless. She and her brother dragged him into the bedroom. Her brother crouched over him. He pressed his father's chest. He tried to blow life into his lungs. David Fee gurgled. But he didn't breathe again. He died of an apparent heart attack.
"I just remember holding his hand and telling him to come back - come back or whatever - and he was gone," his daughter said.
• • •
Fee is running alone. But she can't stop until she reaches her goal.
It's October, three months before the season starts. The pain has begun while running laps around the Valley campus.
"One more, just one more," Fee thinks.
Her teammates survived the team's most grueling workout the day before. Each wrestler had to run a lap around campus (0.9 miles) lugging a 28-pound heavy ball, complete another lap without it and then continue until she had to stop. A schedule conflict forced Fee to miss the initial practice. But now she is trying to beat everyone.
Fee is on her feet longer than she thought would be necessary. Seventeen laps, not 12 or 13, is the benchmark. "I got to beat that," Fee thinks.
Her fiancé, Jason Doxstader, keeps count for her and hands her water. She stops after 18 laps (16.2 miles), but she's disappointed. Twenty was her goal.
"I couldn't even walk for the whole day after," Fee said. "I've never felt my joints in so much pain in my life - my knees, my hips, everything."
• • •
Fee returned to school the day after her father's funeral.
"I just didn't want to stay out too long because I didn't want to start feeling sorry for myself," she said.
But the tragedy still haunted her. Flashbacks tormented her for several weeks. Depression clouded her. She didn't care what she wore to school. Her singlet was the only piece of clothing she cherished. Classes dragged on while she dreamed of punishing her body at wrestling practice after school.
"People I cared about were there. Just going there every day kept me going," Fee said.
The team was her second family. She had grown up wrestling with the guys. And her coach, Chris Jones, became the father figure she needed.
The two clicked from the beginning. Fee impressed Jones when she joined the team as a freshman. Her work ethic and rapport with the team quickly dispelled any doubt Jones held about coaching a girl.
Fee was blessed to have such a supportive coach. She knows girls who weren't allowed to try out for their high school teams or challenge teammates for a chance to make the varsity lineup. But Jones remained confident in Fee even though she lost many matches at first. She fluctuated between 125 and 138 pounds, not in the lower weight classes where girls have more success in high school.
Fee did not stand down. Jones would always inform opponents there was a girl on the team.
"We'll give one of our lesser guys a match," the coaches would say.
"You might not want to do that," Jones said.
They sent stronger wrestlers out against her, and she gained respect. "I wasn't out there just trying to get attention. I wasn't trying to make a statement or anything. I was just doing it because that's what I love to do," Fee said.
Fee's desire intensified after her father's death. Wrestling released her pain. It settled her amid the chaotic events surrounding her. Her father hadn't written a will, so she had to meet with lawyers. Doctors recommended medication. She refused. Her guidance counselor suggested therapy. She finally relented by the end of her junior year.
Since her parents were divorced, she and her brother stayed at their father's home. Their older brother, Jason, lived in Hawaii. Michael Fee became the head of the household. But it was a lonely place that Samantha Fee wanted to avoid. Wrestling was her haven.
She and Jones would come in early for lifting and running at 6 a.m. Practice officially ended at 5 p.m. But some wrestlers would stick around until 8. Fee stayed after almost every day. Sometimes it would only be the two of them, drilling and drilling.
Fee also found out about the development of women's wrestling in 2004. It was a momentous year for the sport when it debuted as an official Olympic event.
The opportunity to wrestle in college motivated her. Without the means to pay for school, a scholarship was attractive. Fee started to compete against girls. She easily won her weight class in the New Jersey state tournament as a sophomore and competed three times at the high school national championships, finishing third in her weight class as a senior. She excelled against boys as well that year, finishing the high school season with a winning record.
Now, at Valley, Fee cannot stop wrestling. Her ultimate goal is to make the Olympic team one day.
The sport has come to define not only her muscular frame, but also her endless drive. "That's why I think it means so much to me now," Fee said. "It really has influenced me how to be a better person because it teaches you so much."
• • •
After dominating Oklahoma City's Phillips in their rematch, Fee is now relaxed. But nerves are coursing through one of Fee's teammates.
Amberlee Ebert, her blue eyes nervously staring into space, is preparing for her rematch against Oklahoma City's Ashley Sword, the 24-year-old called "Mama Sword" by her younger teammates.
Ebert stands by herself. She's motionless, not bouncing around like Fee. Her face flushes as the match approaches. Her hands, painted with white nail polish, are tucked inside her black hooded sweatshirt.
The experienced Sword dominated Ebert, 19, in their first match two weeks earlier in Iowa. Sword was aggressive, preying on Ebert's neck. The veteran clamped Ebert in endless headlocks, jerked Ebert's head repeatedly and then drove her to the mat. Ebert didn't score a point during the match.
Sword is confident from years of training. She joined Oklahoma City University after spending more than four years at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. Ebert is a promising talent. She has a standing invitation to train at the training center.
But Sword's self-assurance intimidates Ebert. It triggers her debilitating self-doubt. Before their match in Iowa, she heard upsetting rumors about Sword from her teammates. Sword was bragging about how she was better than Ebert, they said.
Ebert's teammates comfort her before the rematch. "You need to go and wrestle Amberlee Ebert's match, not Ashley Sword's match like you did last match," Emily Rinehart says. Tanya Miyasaki, Ebert's roommate, massages her left shoulder.
Sword is cool and animated, smacking her thighs with her hands.
Ebert rises and stands still again. "Who wants this?" a voice inside of her says. "I know you want this. Make me proud."
The two wrestlers take the center circle. They quickly shake hands. Ebert's blue eyes peer deep into Sword. The season's most intense rivalry is about to resume.