COLUMBIA — Jennifer Arnold first stepped into Hickman’s gym 25 years ago and never really left.
“I just kept coming back," she said.
The Missouri State High School Activities Association district wrestling tournaments are set for this weekend.
Rock Bridge and Hickman high schools will compete in the Class 4, District 3 tournament at Jefferson City High School. While Tolton Catholic High School will compete in the Class 1, District 1 tournament at Whitfield High School. Each school boasts a defending state champion.
Hickman’s J’den Cox will move up to the heavyweight division after wrestling at 220 pounds during the regular season. The three-time state champion is looking to become only the eighth four-time state champion in the state.
Rock Bridge's Sam Crane, who won the 132-pound title last season, has wrestled in the 138-pound division this season and could move up to the 145-pound division for the state tournament.
Tolton's Jaydin Clayton, who won the 113-pound title last season, has moved all the way up to the 132-pound division this season. Clayton became the first state champion for Tolton.
The top four wrestlers in each weight class at each district tournaments advance to the state tournament next weekend at Mizzou Arena.
During the past two-and-a-half decades, Arnold has supported every wrestler who has worn the purple and gold singlet for the Kewpies.
The team, coaches and parents certainly don’t overlook the continuous love Arnold has shown to the program.
“She is an extra grandmother to them," Hickman coach J.D. Coffman said. "A constant supporter who they can count on.”
Arnold has now watched three of her grandsons wrestle for Hickman over the years.
Her youngest grandson, senior J’Den Cox, is the star of Hickman’s wrestling team. The three-time state champion is trying to become only the eighth four-time state champion in Missouri.
“We can hear her yelling from the mat," Cox said about his grandmother with a laugh. “It’s hard to overlook her eternal love and support, it’s helped me get to where I am today.”
At Hickman duals, Arnold normally roams the floor before the match giving out hugs and words of encouragement. When the match starts she is even more noticeable.
No matter what wrestler is on the mat, Arnold is watching and crocheting at the same time. Her eyes move up and down like clockwork from her perch in the stands, her fingers carefully guiding the yarn through and around the hook, all while shouting out the same advice as the Hickman coaches.
After all her time following wrestling, it's clear Arnold understands how the intense sport works, but she says her biggest interest is howit helps the wrestlers become better people.
“I get to see them develop and build character through wrestling," she said.
Arnold makes sure their efforts don't go unrewarded. That’s why Arnold crochets a purple and gold scarf for every member of the team every year, including junior varsity.
“It’s something to remember the hard work they put in here," Arnold said.
“She always has one for every member of the team, no matter what," Coffman said. "It’s special to them."
At the end of the year, the wins and medals don’t matter so much to Arnold. What does matter is that the team works hard, has fun, and grows through the sport of wrestling.
“Nothing makes me prouder than watching these boys mature," Arnold said with a big smile.