It might surprise some people but girls wrestling in Utah is way ahead of the curve providing quality competitive experiences for its female wrestlers.
And all of this is providing huge dividends.
Westlake’s senior-to-be Lizzie Shunn earned the right to represent the United States at the Under-17 (U17) Junior World Championships to be held in Rome, Italy. She will wrestle in the 65 kilogram weight class with competition starting Wednesday, July 27.
“I’m so excited,” Shunn said. “Having a chance to go to Rome is so cool.”
She did this by winning the national tournament in Texas this spring, and Shunn has been training with the best-of-the-best at the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Colorado Springs.
“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Shunn said. “At the OTC, we get to train with the top senior competitors on the same mats with the same coaches. It’s crazy.”
Shunn won her 33-wrestler bracket in Texas and expects a similar size bracket at this tournament but with wrestlers coming from all over the globe. Shunn should be a top contender, but she expects her toughest competition from her will be the wrestler from Japan.
“Japan has the best women’s wrestling in the world,” Shunn said.
With this success, Shunn is definitely eyeballing the 2024 summer Olympics in Paris.
“Making the 2024 Olympic team is definitely my top goal,” Shunn said.
Shunn has definitely been a wrecking ball on the Utah girls wrestling scene. She has won two sanctioned state championships once the sport was sanctioned by the Utah High School Activities Association (UHSAA) for the 2020-21 season. And as a freshman she won the unofficial state title.
At the national level she is a three-time Triple Crown winner, winning national events in Iowa, Fargo (North Dakota), and Las Vegas. She recently added the U17 national championship to her ever growing impressive résumé.
Shunn said there have been four important mentors in her wrestling growth. One of them has been current Westlake girls head coach Cody Burdett.
“Cody (Burdett) has always been in my corner, never letting me slack off,” Shunn said.
As for Burdett, he has nothing but high praises for Shunn.
“I’m so proud of what Lizzie has accomplished in her young career,” Burdett said. “From her beginnings of her as a youth girl wrestler having to wrestle boys all the time to dominating the Utah girls high school scene, to now becoming a national champion and representing her country in Rome. What an inspiring story of hard work and dedication.”
Another important mentor has been Westlake head boys wrestling coach Jeff Newby, who also serves as the executive director for USA Wrestling Utah. Newby has been one of the key figures in developing girls wrestling in Utah and was recognized for his efforts at the 2021 UHSAA girls state meets.
“He got me into it (wrestling),” Shunn said. “He made me really feel at home and provided the opportunities (to compete).”
USA Wrestling Utah has been especially forward thinking in developing girls wrestling including hiring a full-time coach in Geneva Gray to recruit and cultivate the Beehive State’s talent. Gray will travel with Shunn and be the coach in her corner of her.
Gray feels that Shunn is ready for the challenge.
“I’m very excited for Lizzie making her first World Team,” said Gray. “She’s going to be a medal contender.”
“She has such calm and power. She is powerful in every wrestling position and she knows how to wrestle. Though she is one of the younger members of the team, she has that maturity to lead Team USA,” Gray added.
And behind most every elite athlete is a supportive parent and Shunn’s mother Branden Raleigh has provided the environment for her to thrive.
“My Mom has a great perspective on life and has pushed me through all the tough times,” Shunn said.
But interestingly enough Mom will stay home in Utah while Shunn competes in Rome.
“I will step aside and drink it all in and watch from home,” said Raleigh.
Shunn hasn’t signed or committed to any college program yet. And one of the reasons is that so many schools are adding women wrestling programs.
“I’m not making any decision (about college wrestling) until after Rome,” Shunn stated. “I have a couple of visits lined up but so many colleges are adding programs. I’ll find the right school that has the right fit for coaches and training facilities.”
Shunn isn’t the only female wrestler in Utah County that has thrived in national and international competition recently.
Sage Mortimer, who prepped at American Leadership Academy and was named the Inaugural Utah County Girls Wrestler of the Year by the Daily Herald, placed second in the U20 competition and then went on to win the gold medal at the Pan American games in Acapulco, Mexico .
Maple Mountain’s Aurelia Ramos also placed third in the Cadet Age level (14-15 year-olds) USA Nationals held in Fargo, North Dakota. The competition continues for the rest of the week and the only regret Shunn has about going to Rome is missing this competition as she prepares at the OTC and travels to Rome for the competition.
The cost of overseas competition is prohibitive so a GoFundMe account has been set up to support Shunn. For those interested in donating to help offset her training and traveling expenses can donate at https://gofund.me/bbf551e5.
Westlake sophomore Elizabeth Shunn (right) competes in the finals of the 140-pound weight class at the 6A state girls wrestling tournament in Saratoga Springs on Monday, Feb. 15, 2021.