ANCHORAGE (AP) When the Olympics roll out the welcome mat for women wrestlers next summer, Tela O'Donnell hopes to be among the first to walk across it.
The Alaskan established herself as a contender Saturday when she captured a U.S. Open national wrestling championship in Las Vegas.
O'Donnell, a 2001 graduate of Nikiski High, knocked off the top two wrestlers in the 55-kilogram (121 pounds) weight class for the title. Next she'll compete in the U.S. team trials in Indianapolis, where a berth in August's world championships is at stake.
O'Donnell, ranked third in her weight class entering the competition, eked out narrow decisions over top-ranked Tina George in the championship match and second-ranked Stephanie Murata in the semifinals.
In the championship match, O'Donnell beat George, a heavy favorite who wrestles for the Army, 6-4.
It was back and forth the whole time and I won in the end,'' O'Donnell told the Anchorage Daily News.
In her semifinal victory, O'Donnell took an early lead and held off Murata for a 9-8 victory.
The last time I wrestled her she beat me, so it was exciting to see the improvement in myself,'' O'Donnell said.
During her senior year of high school, O'Donnell, who grew up in Homer, became the second girl in Alaska to place in the state wrestling tournament.
She initially enrolled at Pacific University in Forest Grove, where she competed on the school's women's wrestling team. Last year, she was selected to the U.S. Olympic Development program at Colorado Springs, where she has turned her focus to wrestling while attending classes part-time at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
O'Donnell, 20, said that even if she doesn't qualify for the world championships, she will take her wrestling prowess on the road. A trip to a wrestling tournament in Sweden last year gave her a case of wanderlust.
Next year, regardless of how I do it, I'm going to go on tours to some places,'' she said. It's neat to go to places I'm not used to.''
There's one specific global destination she has in mind: Athens, the host of next year's Summer Olympics, which will feature women's wrestling for the first time.
For now, O'Donnell is savoring her victory in Las Vegas.
It was exciting for me,'' she said. I smiled really big.''
And has she stopped smiling?
Only when I fall asleep. And I'm not even sure about then.''
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