By Dan Arritt, Times Staff Writer
It wasn't the first time Tatiana Padilla landed on her back. Just the first time she was put there by another girl.
Padilla, a sophomore at Covina Northview, nipped at her nails and stared at the floor as she recalled that split second last summer. Sweat from a recent workout still dampened her bundled hair and a red welt showed beneath her right eye.
As she sat in the classroom where her wrestling coach taught biology, the memory seemed to boil her blood like a science experiment gone wild.
"I got caught, "she explained. "I didn't really expect it."
She wasn't down long. Padilla rebounded to win the wrestling match and remain unbeaten against all female opponents. Her streak will be on the line beginning Saturday at the U.S. Girls' Wrestling Assn. national championships in Lake Orion, Mich., where she won the 114-pound high school division title last spring as one of the event's youngest competitors.
"Even when she was 5, she rarely lost to boys, "Northview Coach David Ochoa said.
Padilla almost learned to walk on a wrestling mat, tagging alongside her older brother, Chris Lopez, who won a state title at Northview in 2000. At 3 1/2 and weighing just over 32 pounds, she wrestled in a 40-pound weight class because there was nobody her size. She didn't wrestle another girl until she was 8. Padilla won her first girls' national title in eighth grade and her first boys' varsity tournament this winter.
Last summer she gave Marcie Van Dusen and Tina George " ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the U.S. at 121 pounds, respectively " all they could handle during workouts at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
"I hate losing, period, "said Padilla, who is ranked sixth nationally. Van Dusen, 23, was the first girl from San Bernardino or Riverside counties to win a boys' league wrestling title when she competed for Lake Arrowhead Rim of the World six years ago. Padilla battled her in a nonstop hourlong match.
"I never did that before, "said Padilla, who turned 15 in December. "It was very draining."
George, 27 and a two-time runner-up at the world championships, was not only impressed with Padilla's strength, quickness and technique, but by her composure and maturity.
"Her prospects are very high, "George said. "She does the work that it takes to be successful."
Padilla's goal is to become the first woman from the U.S. to win an Olympic gold medal in wrestling. At the boys' high school state finals last year, Patricia Miranda displayed the bronze she won at the 2004 Games, when women's wrestling made its Olympic debut.
"Tatiana told me she got a tingling feeling in her arms, "said her mother, Lisa Padilla. "She looked at the guy next to her and told him, `I'm going to have the gold.' "
Beijing in 2008 is her primary target. Because she has dual citizenship, she'll attempt to qualify for the Mexican team if she doesn't represent the U.S. Either way, Padilla believes she's coming of age at the right time.
"I want to go to the Olympics, "she said. "That's what gets me excited."
Because so few girls participate in wrestling in the U.S., many of the top female wrestlers hone their skills against boys, and Padilla said she wouldn't want it any other way.
"There's more competition because guys are harder to wrestle, "she said. "It's more of a challenge."
Two states, Texas and Hawaii, do not allow high school girls to wrestle boys, but those states also have the highest percentage of girl wrestlers in the country.
According to the National Federation of State High School Assns., girls account for 28% of the wrestlers in Hawaii and 17% in Texas. The national rate is closer to 1.75%.
According to a California Interscholastic Federation participation survey, 1,230 girls statewide wrestled during the 2004-05 school year, up from 957 two years earlier. By comparison, 13,099 girls from the state played water polo and 19,847 participated in tennis.
Only a handful of California high schools offer girls' wrestling teams. Northview, whose boys' team recently won its third consecutive Southern Section dual-meet title, is not one of them. Only two of Padilla's female classmates are wrestlers, and all three compete on the boys' team.
This year, she moved up from 112 to 125 pounds but ran into a roadblock by the name of Freddy Valencia, a senior who finished seventh at the Southern Section Masters Meet and qualified for the state finals.
"She's a lot tougher than other people I've wrestled, "Valencia said. "She never stops coming back at you."
Competing primarily for the junior varsity, she posted a 20-4 record this season, all against boys.
While girls from smaller states received national attention " Michaela Hutchinson, a 103-pound sophomore from Alaska became the first girl to win a state title while competing against boys earlier this year " Padilla and her family know where to find the best girls' wrestlers in the nation.
Last summer Hutchinson lost on a technical fall to Caitlyn Chase of Illinois in the 110-pound final at the junior women's freestyle national championships in Fargo, N.D. Padilla, who won the 119-pound title at the same event, beat Chase, 8-2, at the U.S. national four months earlier.
With Valencia graduating, Padilla stands a good chance of wrestling varsity next year. Many believe her success will be tied to her weight class. Among girls who have had the most success on boys' teams, the vast majority wrestled at 112 pounds or less.
"The only thing that might slow her down is her weight, "said Kent Bailo, director of the U.S. Girls' Wrestling Assn. "When these wrestlers turn more womanly, they get fat on their bodies in places that might be nice to look at, but are not good for wrestling."
While some female wrestlers have taken drastic steps to keep their weight down and increase their chance for success on boys' teams, even at the risk of their health, Ochoa has been adamant about allowing Padilla to develop naturally.
Regardless, Padilla said she's not worried about losing her edge against the boys since she believes her biggest advantage is her experience.
"I've been doing this forever, "she said. "There's always been people that are stronger than me, but I still had the moves and the technique."
And plenty of motivation to stay off her back.