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For 88-pound Tucson wrestling phenom, it's international tournament now, hopefully Olympics later

Audrey Jimenez stands in front of a red light during treatment at U.S. Cryotherapy-Tucson. The treatment assists with recovery for the 13-year-old wrestler, who earned a spot on a U.S. national team.

It’s 94 degrees on an early October afternoon and Audrey Jimenez is training again.

The 13-year-old wrestler bounds up and across the metal steps inside Sunnyside High School’s football stadium. When she comes down it’s only to jog onto the track and run laps around the Sunnyside High football team, which is on the field practicing.

She’s just finished a two-day fast during which she drank nothing but water, and before that came a week of cutting weight for a development camp in Colorado during which she’ll learn techniques, nutrition and tips from national coaches.

Wrestlers compete within a designated weight class, and frequently have to shed ounces or even pounds before a match’s official weigh-in. Audrey, who wrestles at a weight of 88 pounds, had 2 pounds to drop in preparation for a match the following week that would determine whether she earned a spot on the national team.

Today, she runs lap after lap around the boys on the field, and the symbolism is obvious. Few athletes train as hard, or are as dedicated to their sport.

“I’ll be completely honest, I’ve never seen anyone do it like that at her age,” says Bobby Rodriguez, one of her trainers. “She just sets the tone like I’ve never seen a middle schooler do it.”

Audrey is stoic before and during her workout. She is tired, but her focus is unwavering.

Audrey’s father, Billy Jimenez, says wrestling is her calling, and her coaches and trainers believe she’s destined for greatness. Only two years into the sport, Audrey, a member of the Sunnyside Wrestling Academy, is ranked sixth in the nation on USA Wrestling’s 2018-19 Future Olympian Rankings’ 14 Under division. This spring, she won first place in the Women’s Freestyle Nationals and on Oct. 18, she earned a spot on USA Wrestling’s National Team.

Audrey Jimenez runs up the Sunnyside High School football stands to sweat off weight. “Her success is a testament to her work ethic and athleticism,” says fighter Anthony “El Toro” Birchak.

An eighth grader at Gallego Intermediate Fine Arts Magnet School, Audrey is also a 4.0 student and plays the vihuela, a guitar-like string instrument, in her school’s mariachi band. She gets up at 4:30 a.m. during the week to train before school. She returns home after 6 p.m., when she starts her homework.

Audrey is no stranger to hard work: She took up softball at age 4, playing every position and traveling to tournaments across the country. She thrived in the sport, but once she discovered wrestling it became her passion.

“I like that it’s an individual sport, and I learn a lot of stuff from my coaches and trainers,” she says.

Audrey and her father, Billy, have lunch at Whole Foods.

A softball standout has a revelation

Audrey was introduced to wrestling by her father’s cousin, Tucson MMA fighter Anthony “El Toro” Birchak, during a visit to his jiujitsu gym, 10th Planet.

She excelled at the sport, taking to it immediately.

She competed in her first match after a week of training, and although she lost, she was able to fight her way out of a rear naked choke, a powerful move that’s extremely difficult to escape because the opponent is behind the wrestler being held. Her skill, calmness and determination earned her respect from her peers.

Audrey initially split her time between wrestling and softball, but turned her focus to the mat following a particularly agonizing softball defeat. Birchak said Audrey came to him, upset about the loss, and he explained that sometimes when you play on a team, not every player tries his or her hardest.

“In wrestling, it’s just you,” Birchak says. “As soon as I told her that, I could see the little wheels in her head turning.”

Audrey quit softball and hasn’t looked back.

“I realized if I was really serious, I needed to catch up with everyone else,” she says.

Her rise in the wrestling world has been steady, and anything but slow: She won state and national championships early into her career and continues to climb the short list for the 2024 Olympics.

Women’s wrestling was introduced at the 2004 Olympics, with four events to the men’s 14. Wrestling as a whole faced an uncertain future at the Olympics six years ago, when it was almost removed from the lineup for 2020. But a change in leadership at United World Wrestling and several changes to the 2016 Olympic program — including two more women’s events — led to the sport’s reinstatement.

Audrey does squats during training at Jet Sports Training.

“Her success is a testament to her work ethic and athleticism,” Birchak said, adding that no other family members aside from Audrey and him have wrestled outside the United States. “I’m glad there’s another international athlete coming out of Tucson, Arizona, and it just so happens to be part of my bloodline.”

On Nov. 1, Audrey will travel to Panama for the U15 Pan American Championship, an international competition hosted by United World Wrestling, the international governing body for amateur wrestling. The organization oversees wrestling at the Olympics and hosts tournaments around the world in an effort to promote and develop wrestling in all its forms on all continents.

Audrey seems unfazed by the trip, saying she’s used to traveling for softball. But the trip to Panama is different: It will mark the first time she’s been out of the country.

“They’d never really seen a girl wrestle”

If Audrey is nervous her first international appearance, it doesn’t show. She’s focused only on her craft and on her future.

It’s a future that increasingly includes women.

In June, the NCAA recommended that women’s wrestling be added as an emerging sport for all three divisions in 2020. Twenty-three NCAA schools have women’s wrestling teams, and another 13 plan to add the sport in the next two years , USA Wrestling says.

Audrey competes against girls in her age and weight group. She trains mostly with boys, since there are so few girls on the Sunnyside club.

“At first, the boys weren’t sure what to do. They’d never really seen a girl wrestle,” Audrey says of her teammates at Sunnyside. “But they became really accepting and now I’ve made more friends.”

Anthony Leon, one of Audrey’s coaches, is quick to say her talents are special.

Audrey’s lashes and hair freeze inside a cryotherapy chamber.

“I’ve been around a lot of good ones, but she’s special,” Leon says, praising her work ethic and adding that she leads by example. “It’s hard for high school kids to not be motivated when an eighth-grade female is outworking them” during practice.

Before running laps one afternoon, Audrey grapples with Sunnyside teammate Angel Serrano, repeatedly tossing him over her shoulder like a backpack. Her stoicism is impossible to ignore and seemingly infectious: While hoots and hollers from the basketball practice next door slip through the closed gym doors, it’s quiet as a church in the Sunnyside wrestling room as Audrey and Serrano square off, their movements as graceful as a ballet.

In July, Audrey will head to Fargo, North Dakota, for the nationals, where she’ll compete as an eighth grader. But from there, her future is up in the air.

While it’s clear that Sunnyside’s coaches would love for her to wrestle for their high school team during the 2020-21 school year, Audrey and her father are considering Wyoming Seminary, a boarding school in Pennsylvania that boasts a top-ranked wrestling program.

The choice will be difficult, and Billy Jimenez is clearly torn. Part of him wants his daughter to stay at home and train near her family, but he wants Audrey to have every chance to succeed.

Billy knows about loss and the importance of seizing opportunities. He earned a football scholarship to NAU only to have his dreams dashed days before his high school graduation. A car accident wiped out his dreams of playing football.

Wrestling is his daughter’s calling, Jimenez says. “I have to do everything I can do to get her where I can get her.”

Audrey Jimenez talks with James Armstrong Sr., left, and one of her coaches, Mike Bravo, during wrestling practice at Sunnyside High School. Bravo serves as Audrey’s “corner man” at tournaments.

“I can’t believe this girl is doing it at this young of an age”

For Audrey’s father, “everything” means early wake-up calls, long hours in the gym and the expenses — airfare, entry fees, hotel rooms — that come with competitive sports.

Last spring, Audrey started working out at Jet Sports Training under owner Bobby Rodriguez, a 2007 Sunnyside High School graduate who studied jiujitsu and mixed martial arts in Brazil.

Audrey is ready to work when she arrives in the morning and takes her workouts seriously, as she does everything else related to wrestling.

“We start at 4:45 in the morning and she’s literally a machine,” Rodriguez says. “She’s programmed herself to be disciplined in a way where there’s no complaining and no negotiations as far as the workouts.”

Rodriguez, a professional bullrider who was a wrestler and football player during his time at Sunnyside, says it’s important to him to give back to the programs that gave him so much.

“When I was at Sunnyside, I remember our first-period class was football class and I remember the importance of getting to school on time to get that class in,” Rodriguez says. These days he works out the high school’s wrestling team during first period, while also making it to early morning training sessions with Audrey five days a week.

Audrey’s support system is clearly proud of her. Hours after Billy Jimenez posted on social media about her advancement to the Pan American Championships, Jet Sports Training shared the news on its Facebook page, posting a picture of Rodriguez and Audrey. Rodriguez routinely showcases the talents of athletes that work out at his gym, but he’s open in admitting that he believes Audrey is unique.

“In my soul, I really think that we’re going to see her in women’s wrestling for years to come at a world-class level,” Rodriguez says. “Sometimes it’s like I can’t believe this girl is doing it at this young of an age. It’s almost scary to think about what she can do in like five or 10 years.”

James Armstrong Sr. wraps his arm around Audrey as they walk by a pair of shoes on the wall during practice. The shoes belonged to Armstrong’s son Josiah “JoJo,” a wrestler who died in the spring because of liver failure.

Mike Bravo, another of Audrey’s coaches and the grandfather of Sunnyside alumnus and Penn State wrestler Roman Bravo-Young, also sees a future in wrestling for Audrey. Bravo travels with her and her father to tournaments, serving as Audrey’s “corner man.”

“The sacrifices they make are incredible,” Bravo says of the Jimenezes.

The Jimenez family cuts costs whenever possible, staying with friends when they travel and often cooking their own meals. Still, even out-of-town tournaments in Arizona and California are expensive, and Billy hopes a sponsorship is in his daughter’s future.

An effort is underway to make Sunnyside an official Regional Training Center for USA Wrestling, with the club already attracting out-of-town wrestlers due to Tucson’s climate. Regional Training Centers attract sponsors that pay for tournament travel, provided athletes follow strict criteria to earn and keep the designation.

It’s uncertain if that will happen during Audrey’s time with the club, but Billy Jimenez remains hopeful that sponsors will watch Audrey as she steps onto a larger stage next month, representing the United States in the Pan American Championship.

An easy victory — for once

Audrey takes a long pause when asked how she likes to spend her free time, perhaps because she has so little of it.

“I’m a foodie,” she says, “but I’m always on weight management.”

“At first, the boys weren’t sure what to do. They’d never really seen a girl wrestle,” Audrey says of her teammates.

Audrey’s mother, Denise Jimenez, works for UPS Freight and was a serious softball player. She initially struggled with Audrey’s decision to quit the sport, but now she’s “super supportive,” helping out when Audrey needs to cut weight and cheering on her daughter at workouts.

Audrey’s sister, a sophomore at Pima Community College, was the wrestling manager at Tucson High School during her junior and senior years. Once Audrey began to get interested in the sport, her sister would bring her to practices with her.

“I was just blessed with two amazing daughters,” Denise Jimenez says.

Billy Jimenez serves as a caregiver for his parents. While it’s not easy work, the schedule provides him the freedom to transport Audrey to workouts, treatments and practice.

He and Audrey leave for Panama on Wednesday.

“I’m looking forward to wrestling people from different cultures who learned in different ways,” Audrey says.

After Panama, she plans to take a little break. Her elbow has been sore from growing pains.

But her planned routine during that so-called break is more rigorous than most people’s exercise routines: She plans to keep running, but will cut her practices — maybe to just three a week.

During her preparation for last week’s camp, and up until weigh-ins, Audrey was under the impression she’d be competing for her spot on the national team, but she received an automatic bid after her opponent failed to make weight.

“My dad asked me if I was disappointed because of the work I put in, but I didn’t work hard just for that match, I actually worked hard for the Pan Am” Championships, Audrey says. “I wasn’t mad that I didn’t wrestle her, because everything I did for that match was worth it and it’s still paying off.”

Contact reporter Caitlin Schmidt at cschmidt@tucson.com or 573-4191. Twitter: @caitlincschmidt.

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