I never met Margaret LeGates during our one year together at Libertyville High School. I was a mere freshman and she a mighty senior — we weren’t even in the same building — but everyone knew the name of the girl on our powerhouse wrestling team.
She wrestled for three years on junior varsity and varsity and won only seven matches. The novelty made her newsworthy, but so did her success: after graduation, LeGates won a silver medal at the Women’s World Freestyle Championships in Bulgaria.
I hadn’t thought of her for many years, though, until my conversation last week with Grand Ridge’s Jake Yacko.
“I started wrestling as a kid,” said Yacko, one of the lead volunteers for Streator Youth Wrestling. “Went to Marquette my freshman year and they didn’t offer wrestling, so I switched to Ottawa. My three years I wrestled one girl from Libertyville. We did not see any female wrestlers and I sincerely didn’t know what to do. So I just wrestled her.”
Yacko won that bout and plenty of others. His passion for wrestling lasted long past his 1994 graduation, as he continued to compete in off-season tournaments into his 30s. But his fervency found a new focus about six years ago when he took his middle daughter to see a workout of the local youth grappling group.
“She had played T-ball and softball and was a pretty decent athlete. Small, strong,” Yacko said of Ashlyn, who turns 13 in November. “After her first practice, she was hooked.”
What’s happened since is nothing short of astounding. Ashlyn has become as dedicated to the sport as her father, and now Yacko is one of the leading proponents of getting girls onto the mat. He and Luke Gwaltney took over the Streator program at the start of last season and signed up 44 boys and 17 girls.
“It’s the fastest growing sport in the nation, and this past year for the first time saw a 46 percent rise in female competition,” Yacko said. “Ashlyn is now a captain for our team and is wanting to follow this into high school, college and the Olympics.”
Yacko’s youngest daughter, Addison, just finished her second full year of competition and placed fifth at the state tournament at Aurora University. Gwaltney has two daughters on the Streator team, and Yacko said the four girls became fast friends while their natural competitiveness pushes them all to greater success.
“It’s not a sport most are just ‘good’ at right away,” he explained, noting he’s never surprised when a girl struggles out of the gate. “It’s complete muscle memory and strength training. Practice, practice, practice.”
Ashlyn lost every match for her first two years, all against boys. Her first trip to the girls state tournament went poorly from a competitive standpoint.
“They wiped the mat with her,” Yacko recalled. “She was beat so bad, I thought she was going to quit. But, I got to see something I’d never seen. A gym FULL of girl wrestlers.”
That also was where Ashlyn met Leigh Jaynes, an Army officer who won bronze at the 2015 World Wrestling Championships and competed for a spot on the 2016 Olympics team. That encounter stirred Ashlyn to double down on both her own career as well as recruitment.
The efforts clearly have paid off, and Yacko said the girls he coaches are connecting with the sport in the same ways that ignited his fire all those years ago.
“They don’t walk the same,” he said. “It’s all confidence. I’ve never seen anything like it. They are known school-wide for their success. … I couldn’t be any happier than I am, because I really don't ever have to worry about them. Wrestlers don’t get bullied, and I’ve never in eight years of coaching had a kid get good and be a bully. They are actually the ‘anti-bully.’ ”
Social media helps Yacko advocate for youth wrestling, and especially for getting girls involved, plus connecting with coaches throughout the country to share resources and experiences. He expects a bigger turnout next season.
Yacko clearly never forgot his bout with LeGates, though back then neither would’ve guessed he’d be where he is today. The drive clearly extends beyond his family to all the kids he coaches, and there’s obvious gratitude for his dedication.
“The amount of parents that come up to us as coaches telling us what a difference we’ve made in their kids — that’s why we do it,” Yacko said. “It’s literally changing girls’ lives.”
SCOTT T. HOLLAND is a former associate editor of The Times who continues to contribute his column plus help with editing and writing. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook.com/salmagundi or twitter.com/sth749.