Kelsey Squires has always been a thrill seeker.
So it came as no surprise to her mother, Nicole Squires, when the then eighth-grader decided she wanted to compete in wrestling. She had always been athletic and willing to try different sports, whether it be cheerleading when she was younger, the shot put in track and field or even football.
“I always tell her, if you want something, you got to try it,” Ms. Squires said.
Now a rising senior at Riverhead High School, Kelsey’s rapid ascension in wrestling has landed her at the pinnacle of the sport for her age with a trip to the USA Wrestling Junior National Championships in Fargo, N.D. where she’ll compete next week against some of the top girls her age in the country.
The competition runs July 16-23 and Kelsey is scheduled to wrestle July 20 and 21.
“I’m definitely nervous about it,” Kelsey said prior to leaving for Fargo, where she’ll stay at the University of North Dakota. “It’s going to be the biggest stage I’m ever going to wrestle on. I’m just going to go in with the right head space and do what I can to place.”
In May, Kelsey wrestled at the Phil Portuese Northeast Regional. While she was one of only two girls at her 210-pound weight class in the competition, her second-place finish against Keita Makansira earned her a spot at the national championship.
The regional was her first time wrestling in a freestyle tournament. In high school, she would always wrestle folk style, so it presented a learning curve to adapt. Each style is scored differently and wrestlers tend to use different moves.
“It took a lot to get used to it,” she said, adding that she prefers the freestyle.
Like many girl wrestlers, Kelsey’s introduction the sport came by competing with the boys. Katie Moore became the first girl to wrestle with the Riverhead varsity team in 2017. Kelsey joined her on the team before Katie graduated in 2020. This past year, the failed budget at Riverhead meant no winter sports and no wrestling.
Riverhead’s varsity wrestling coach, Jake Benedetto, introduced Kelsey to his fiancée, Amber Atkins, who happens to be the head coach of the only girls varsity wrestling team in Suffolk County at Bay Shore High School. Kelsey was able to join the Bay Shore team this past winter and compete solely against girls while still attending Riverhead.
Facing boys, she needed to out-skill an opponent. But against girls, she could be stronger and faster.
On the boys team, she admitted there were times she thought about quitting.
“Even now, there’s times where you’re not happy with the way you’re wrestling or you don’t think you’re good enough to be going where you’re going, but I’ve had the people to keep my head straight and keep me into it.”
Her training went to another level by joining the Team Alpha Girls Wrestling Club in Islip, founded by coach Ken Corcoran. Several of her teammates at Alpha are joining her in Fargo for nationals.
Her biggest growth came on the mental side of the sport, she said.
“My confidence with wrestling just shot up,” she said. “I used to get on the mat and not want to take shots. And I let the first shot be taken. Now when I’m wrestling I have the mindset that I can win.”
Wrestling was perhaps somewhat in her DNA. Her mother said when she was in middle school she wanted to wrestle. Instead she became the manager of the team since opportunities for girls didn’t exist then.
Her mother said it’s been a blast watching her daughter compete and the boys on the Riverhead team were “so welcoming” when Kelsey first started.
It’s a lot of traveling now, but it’s all worth it, she said.
“Once you see her on the mat she’s firecracker,” she said. “It’s awesome.”
Ms. Squires and her husband, Justin, plan to fly to North Dakota Monday to watch their daughter compete. Friends and family helped pitch in with expenses for Kelsey to compete after Ms. Squires set up a GoFundMe page.
“Our friends and family have been so supportive of this,” she said.
As a thrill seeker, Kelsey’s interests don’t stop with wrestling. She’s also followed her father’s footsteps in auto racing. Mr. Squires competes at Riverhead Raceway, where he and his wife have been going for nearly 20 years. He mostly worked on cars during that time and then got into racing himself at the raceway in recent years.
Now Kelsey has started to race the truck enduros.
“It’s fun but it’s definitely not my main priority,” she said.
Throughout the summer she’s been running her “starter” truck in practices and then got into one race.
“The truck is a hunk of junk, but it’s fun,” she said.
Looking ahead, Kelsey hopes to continue her wrestling career in the U.S. Army through the World Class Athlete Program, which allows soldiers to perform at the international level.
“It’s always been something I’ve wanted to do, but it never truly hit that I actually could do it until recently because I was wrestling boys,” she said. “I always wanted to wrestle as long as I could.”