An interview by Logan Shanks
24-year-old Maya Nelson has already had an impressive career, but the Sunkist Kids club member is far from finished. Nelson posted a dominant 12-0 record at the collegiate level, winning the NAIA Invitational as a sophomore. Nelson's other accolades include four championships at Fargo, four years as a USA World Team Member, and most recently, taking fifth place at the 2021 World Championships. Nelson has recently been recovering from an injury, and she’s eager to put her foot back on the gas pedal and get back to work. Here’s what the first-ever female Chain Wrestling Athlete has to say about her phenomenal career so far:
Q: What made you want to work with Chain Wrestling?
A: Actually, Gina Perry was the one who introduced me to Chain Wrestling. She’s been a big supporter of mine for a while, and she was letting me know: 'A lot of people want to support you, and these guys are really good. They can get some merchandise out for you.' Then I had a meeting with you guys, and I really liked the vibes, and I was like, 'Okay this will work.'
Q: What made you want to start coaching camps, and how does it make you feel to have that opportunity?
A: My dad runs a little league still, and that’s how I started wrestling. Where I’m from, it’s a pretty rough neighborhood, and he was trying to keep the kids off the street. And now being able to be a mentor for these kids and be a mentor, that’s what makes me want to do it. Growing up, I had to wrestle boys, and I feel like that made me tough. I know that other girls want to see someone who is thriving in the sport and have someone to look up to. So if I can be that person for a girl or a boy or anyone, that’s what I wanna be.
Q: Who has made the biggest impact on your wrestling career, whether it be a coach or teammate, or even someone off of the mat?
A: My mom has been the one to push me through the greatest depths that I've been through. When I lost at state my senior year, I was sobbing in the bathroom. My mom got in, and I don’t know how she was able to get down there, but she told me, 'Maya, get up.' Some people say that's kind of harsh, but I needed to hear that, and she always tells me what I need to hear. She’s seen me through the ups and downs, and she’s always the first person I wanna call after a match.
Q: How do you think the persona and atmosphere of women and young girls in wrestling changed within the past couple of years?
A: The growth of women wrestling has been amazing to watch. When I started from when I was four years old through high school, I was wrestling boys, and now there’s a girls' state tournament in Colorado. Many girls didn’t want to wrestle because they would’ve had to wrestle boys, and I’m sure the parents thought that, too. But now, women’s wrestling has grown, and they see that other women are wrestling, and they think, 'Okay, this is safe now.' It’s shaped who I am, and I’ve gotten so many lessons from it, and I’m glad other women and young girls are learning those same lessons. With camps, many women are learning about the fun stuff of wrestling. Pushing this idea of all these things I’ve learned through wrestling, that your strength is beautiful and that you can be strong and beautiful. Just showing girls that you can still be a little cutie and wrestle these girls.
Q: Every injury is different for each athlete, but what advice would you give to athletes on recovering from an injury both mentally and physically?
A: I’ve had three shoulder surgeries, and I’ve also had smaller injuries that haven’t kept me from wrestling. The best advice I can give to athletes on recovering from injuries is that you have to find yourself without your sport. A lot of times, we get caught up in thinking wrestling is who you are and not just something you do. When it comes to recovering, and this is easier said than done, you have to stay positive. Sometimes I would wake up and think this sucks, but positive reinforcement is what helps your body. Positivity does heal. I’ve had conversations with high schoolers asking if they want a wrestling career or if they want it to be done after high school. Whatever they choose is fine, but you need to be healthy enough to have this longevity in your career. It’s okay to give yourself time to heal. You don’t have to rush back.
Q: How has the Sunkist Kids been able to improve you as an athlete?
A: I have so much love for Sunkist, and they picked me up when I was around 16 or 17 years old, which really helped my parents out a lot. Even dealing with the injury I have now, they have continued to speak positive life into me and taught me different things here and there. Being able to make a world team and competing in a medal match, a lot of that I attribute to them. Sunkist is a great club, but they pick some great coaches as well.
Q: Did you play any other sports growing up, and what made you want to stick with wrestling?
A: I played so many other sports growing up. I started with soccer, then wrestling, then I did tennis and swimming, and when I turned eight, I started playing tackle football. My family is very competitive, and my parents always wanted me and my sister to be in a sport. With wrestling, I started when I was four, and I’m not gonna lie, I lost every single match for two years straight. I don’t know what kept me going, but I started winning and started to love the sport. When I got into high school, I decided to get better at one sport. At that point, I was thinking about what would get me scholarships. My first love was soccer, but I thought wrestling might be the way to go for me 'cause I was pretty good. So I just focused in on wrestling and growing through that.
Q: Can you describe your career and story in three words and why you chose those three?
A: Striving through adversity. My career has often been riddled with so much adversity both on and off the mat. I can strive through that and any injuries or family emergencies that I’m going through. Those are definitely the three words that will stick with me even after wrestling. When you’re in a match, the adversity is right in front of you, and you have to strive through that. Wrestling has helped me a lot in the real world. Knowing you’re worthy and you’re capable and that you will make it through all of this.
SHOW THE LOVE! Support Maya Nelson's journey to Olympic gold with gear from her exclusive collection. See the full collection here.
About the author: Logan Shanks
Logan was part of the Ankeny High School wrestling team from 8th grade until he graduated in 2020. He's currently a sophomore majoring in Journalism and Mass Communications at Iowa State University. Logan hopes to one day write for a major league sports team and share with the world his thoughts and opinions on multiple sports.