Washougal wrestler goes for the iron

Team captain Melina Aguilar hopes to win ‘Ultimate Iron Man’ award for perfect practice attendance

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Washougal's Melina Aguilar (top) scraps for positioning in her opening-round match at the Region 3 girls wrestling meet in Kelso, Wash., on Feb. 15, 2020. Aguilar, a two-time Mat Classic qualfier, is the Panthers' 2021 captain. (Post-Record file photo)

In the summer of 2018, Washougal wrestling coaches John and Heather Carver took their grapplers to North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, for a camp that featured several highly decorated instructors, including Clarissa Chun, a former Team USA competitor who won a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympic Games.

Knowing young athletes sometimes have a tendency to revert back to their previous methods after learning new skills in different environments, the Carvers told their wrestlers they were going to give an award to the person who “takes risks and isn’t afraid to get flopped to their belly because they’re trying new things” at the end of the camp.

Melina Aguilar, a sophomore at the time, won that award.

“That just shows (her) humility and respect for the sport,” said Heather Carver, the Panthers’ girls wrestling coach, said of Aguilar. “She’s willing to go out of her safety zone to try new things, and that’s not something that everybody can brag about.”

Aguilar’s willingness to embrace new challenges is one of the reasons she became a wrestler in the first place. It’s also a reason why she has emerged as one of the Panthers’ best wrestlers.

She qualified for Mat Classic during her sophomore and junior years, and most likely would have been favored to bring home her first trophy this year if the state tournament had not been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead, Aguilar is on a mission to finish her high school career with a different kind of prize — the Washougal wrestling program’s “Iron Man” award, given annually to the grapplers who attended every practice during the season.

If Aguilar is able to win the award this spring, she also will receive the program’s “Ultimate Iron Man” honor for attending every practice during her high school wrestling career.

“I think it would be very honorable,” Aguilar said. “It would show that I want to be there and work hard. I also want to be there for the others that are learning and help them out as well.”

Aguilar said she wants the award not only for herself but for her team.

“This year I’m captain, so if I’m skipping out, it just shows, ‘Oh, she’s not motivated.’ It wouldn’t be good to be seen as that,” she explained. “One thing that really motivates me is setting a good example for the younger kids and the new kids that come into the sport. I want to be a leader so they can have someone to look up to.”

Carver calls Aguilar “Easy Money” in reference to her self-motivation and coachability.

“She wrestles real ‘snaky.’ Just when you think you have her, she’ll weasel out of things,” Carver said. “When she gets on the mat, she just grinds. It’s hard to explain. She’s constantly moving. She’ll scramble herself into a great position and score on it, and that’s hard to teach.”

“Physically, I’m (strong), but when I’m beaten down physically, I find a way mentally to assert myself and continue on and keep going,” Aguilar added. “I think my mentality has a lot to do with how I wrestle.”

Aguilar competed in the 170-pound weight class during her freshman year and assumed she would continue to slot in at one of the heavyweight positions going forward.

But after joining the Camas Wrestling Club that summer, she started losing weight at a rapid pace. When she returned to the Washougal program in the fall, she was assigned to the 130-pound weight class, where she’s been ever since.

“The weight loss just kind of happened naturally. I never really set my mind to it,” she said. “But (after I lost the weight), I set my mind to it. I was like, ‘I want to keep it at that weight’ because I was doing really well and getting more wins. It really helped me because it not only made it easier to do certain things … but I feel like I’m faster, and I can work harder.”

“She’s smaller but stronger,” Carver added. “I know that she’s ran through three or four pairs of running shoes. She’s healthy, moves great and has strength.”

Aguilar didn’t aspire to become an athlete when she was younger. She enjoyed rooting for her older brother, Ruben, a star wrestler when he graduated from Washougal High School in 2016, but didn’t necessarily feel a strong desire to emulate him.

That changed when longtime Panther wrestling supporters Randy and Teresa Lees introduced Aguilar to a wrestling club in Battle Ground when she was in the sixth grade. She joined the Panthers’ program as a freshman and fell in love with the sport.

“I’d go to (Ruben’s) wrestling matches all the time, and everybody would say, ‘You’d be such a good wrestler. You should wrestle.’ And I would be like, ‘Oh, no, I wouldn’t be a good wrestler,'” Aguilar said. “It took a little while. It was never easy. I’d get beat down, I’d lose a few matches, but I never really let that break me down. I used it to keep going, to motivate me. I did struggle the first few years, but coming out of ninth grade … I was more motivated to do it, and I started to love the sport more and continue on with it.”

Aguilar said she is considering joining the military or training to become a firefighter after high school, but has not made any definite plans yet.

“I’m always taking on challenges and challenging myself to do more,” Aguilar said.