CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. (WPRI) — Lakiesha Sullivan faced smirking, dismissive boys during her first season as a high school wrestler.
And maybe they had reason to take her lightly since she would finish that season with a bagel in the win column and 17 losses.
She won’t forget her first ‘w’ the following fall, and the wrestler who ended up with his back on the canvas might not either.
“Halfway through the match, his emotions changed. He was really getting upset,” Sullivan said with a smirk of her own. “He didn’t understand why he was losing. And then when I pinned him, he actually started crying.”
From the outside, the Providence County Wrestling Club fits in as part of a maze of Central Falls warehouses. But inside, Sullivan and hundreds of other student-athletes are sweating the X’s and O’s of wrestling on the mat, with the goal to apply the same work ethic to earn A’s and B’s in the classroom.
It all starts about five years ago with a handful of would-be wrestlers in a much smaller gym.
Now, nearly 400 are part of the nonprofit club that survives on donations and volunteers.
The grueling workouts in the steamy Clay Street building, retrofitted with mats and exercise equipment, are the dream of two wrestlers who as teenagers faced long odds to succeed.
Eugene Monteiro learned his craft first at Hope High School and then honed his moves at Rhode Island College and in the Army.
“I had friends that were getting in trouble. Real easy to make that decision to join them,” Monteiro said. “Luckily, I had a really tough mom and wrestling.”
The plan for the club was first drawn up on a restaurant napkin that Monteiro has since framed.
Although, he and his partner Tom Ausley say they talked about the idea for years and are quick to credit the kids who put in the work.
One of many examples is Sullivan, who now helps coach the younger athletes.
Sullivan barely talked when she started working out with the club.
That first season might have helped her speak up, to her coaches at least.
“She came to me that summer and said, ‘I don’t want to lose anymore,'” Monteiro recalled. “And I told her, ‘fine. But it will take a lot of work, all summer.'”
He said sometimes Sullivan was the only wrestler in the gym, but it paid off the following season.
“She had an opportunity to wrestle against 10 [of those 17] boys she lost to, ” Monteiro said with a proud smile. “And she pinned them.”
When asked how her opponents seemed to feel about losing to her, his smile turned into a chuckle.
“Not good. Not good.”
Sullivan’s skills earned her a shot at wrestling for East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania, which means she will make history as the first Rhode Island female college wrestler.
Her coaches love when their kids win and advance but insist the true measure of success is when the young athletes take their work ethic in the gym to the classroom.
“Not only did [Lakiesha] make it on the wrestling mat, she made it academically,” Monteiro said. “That’s what it’s all about. Wrestling to me is the carrot. It’s what gets them in the door. Keeps their attention.”
Sullivan agrees, adding she is not done working and achieving, and that others will follow from a program which now has 80 female wrestlers.
“I’m proud of myself and I’m a little nervous, but someone has to be the first [woman],” she said. “I’m definitely not going to be the last.”