Throwing down the cliches

John Carroll's Gabriella Denu brings her judo skills to the boys wrestling team

January 07, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,[special to the sun]

Gabriella Denu wrapped her arms around a 114-pound opponent's waist, lifted him onto his tiptoes and threw him to the floor.

Then she flipped a 121-pound foe over her shoulder. After she crashed the wrestler onto the mat, the 5-foot, 106-pound Gabriella plopped down and pinned him.

Just as quickly as she handled teammates during the recent practice session, the freshman has subdued skepticism about a girl being on John Carroll School's junior varsity wrestling team.

"At first I was worried about whether or not the boys would accept me as a part of the team, but it did not take much to prove myself," she said.

As promising as Gabriella looks as a wrestler, the sport is a new pursuit for her. And it is one she has dived into headfirst, because it complements her development in the sport she is even more passionate about: judo.

"I often do my judo throws in wrestling," said Gabriella, an Aberdeen resident who has been learning judo for about eight years. "It helps me improve my judo skills, and it helps me learn wrestling techniques."

She is the U.S. Judo Association's top-ranked female in the nation for her age and weight, based on her performance in several state, regional and national competitions. She also is ranked second in the Pan-American Judo Union, a region that includes North, South and Central America.

Now she is aiming even higher, setting her sights on the 2012 Olympics.

"From the time I competed in my first match, I knew that this was the sport for me," Gabriella said. "And I want to go all the way."

She was introduced to judo by her father, Richard, who was taking a jujitsu class in a building where judo also was being taught. Gabriella peeked in on the judo class and wanted to give it a try.

"I was happy she wanted to try it," said her father, an Aberdeen police officer. "She is athletically gifted. She is mentally tough, physically tough, and she is very determined."

Gabriella loved judo instantly. But it took longer for her mother to adjust the idea that her daughter chose judo - and then wrestling - over, say, ballet.

"I was asking my husband, `What are you doing to my daughter?' But as soon as I saw her in her judo class, I knew it was right for her," Elaina Denu said.

Gabriella's No. 1 national ranking earned her a spot in the Pan American Infantile Championships held Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 in Maracaibo, Venezuela. But her path to competing on the world stage was clouded a month earlier by the death of her 13-year-old brother, Dillon, of a brain tumor.

Though devastated, Gabriella decided that she wanted to honor her brother by giving it her best shot at the competition. When her match began, she imagined Dillon watching from the stands.

"Dillon was always very impressed by what I was doing," she said. "Although I was emotionally drained, I was determined to make him proud of me. He was not there in person, but he was there in spirit cheering me on."

Gabriella finished second in the grueling competition. When she returned from Venezuela, she went back to wrestling.

Though her father had been happy about her taking up judo, her interest in wrestling was a harder sell. "When she came to me and said she wanted to join the boys wrestling team, the idea did not really appeal to me," he said. "Boys have all these creepy rashes, and they sweat, and I was not sure I wanted her with them. And there are a lot of injuries in wrestling versus judo."

But he let Gabriella make the decision.

John Carroll's wrestling coach, Keith Watson, was concerned about whether the boys on the team would warm to the idea of having girls on the squad (the roster also includes freshman Beth Bahr).

To break the ice on the first day of practice, Watson directed Gabriella to throw one of the bigger wrestlers. The team watched in amazement. Although it was the first time that girls had been on the team, the boys accepted their female teammates.

"Once I threw that boy, they knew I was serious about wrestling," said Gabriella, who wrestles in the 112-pound weight class and has compiled a 4-3 record.

Still, there are awkward aspects.

"She is a good wrestler and everything, but she is a girl," said teammate Trey Profili. "You have to be careful not to touch her body parts. She smells different, she has longer hair, and she acts different than boys."

At times, Gabriella's gender works to the team's advantage, Trey said.

"At the meets, guys come out and see her and they are not ready because they do not want to wrestle a girl," the 14-year-old Bel Air resident said. "So she wins the match, because they are not prepared."

The surprising discoveries about the opposite sex go both ways, Gabriella said.

"I did not expect the boys to be so mature," she said. "But they are fun to have around, and they help me when I need it."

More than anything, being on the team is an ideal arrangement for Gabriella because wrestling bolsters her judo. She frequently demonstrates judo throws during practice, including one called a Japanese whizzer.

"Judo lends itself to wrestling," said Watson, her coach. "And I wanted her on the team because she can teach the other wrestlers some of her throws."

Meanwhile, the judo work continues, and Gabriella keeps her goals clearly in focus.

"I know it will be a lot of work, but I want to make the world team and compete in the 2012 Olympics in London," she said. "I can do it. I have to work hard and not give up. Dillon would want me to try."

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