BILLINGS — “It was tough at first, but I pulled through, but now I love it."
Billings Senior wrestler Payton Kale's description of the program's inaugural season at first sounds like a metaphor for the COVID-19 pandemic. But the last part is how the majority of the team feels one month in.
“My first week wrestling, I was really nervous," said wrestler Gracy Jones. "It was hard to understand what I was doing at first, but once I got the hang of it, it started to get really fun.”
A big reason is the city’s first girls wrestling head coach, Mickey Mahlmeister, hired at Senior after Billings School District 2 backtracked on an original plan to hire a district-wide coach for all three high schools. Mahlmeister's positive attitude has kept the program's retention rate at nearly 100% through the first month.
"He's been great. You can joke with him," Kale said.
"He’s taught me a lot, and he’s just been really good help trying to understand all the moves," Jones added.
Mahlmeister grew up in the sport in Arizona, and wrestled collegiately at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D. He’s been working with Senior athletes for seven years, but there was one in particular that put him on track for this job.
“I’ve always been a part of Darkhorse (Senior's club team) and Senior High since I’ve been here in Billings," Mahlmeister said, "and when my daughter started showing interest and some success with it, and they were going to introduce this program, it just elevated my interest in it.”
Less than a month in, he couldn’t be happier.
“There’s no pressure. We’ve got a great group of girls that are working extremely hard, so any pressure that could have been there, the girls are helping to relieve that.”
It works both ways: the sport has helped relieve a lot of the pressure pandemic life throws at the girls.
“It takes my mind off things, because you’re so focused on working hard," said Kale.
“It gives me something to look forward to throughout the day. So during school, when I’m really bored, I get really excited to come to practice and learn," Jones said.
“Get your mind off the pandemic, get your mind off quarantine," Mahlmeister said of the opportunity the sport provides. "Sitting at home, sitting in the classroom is really all these kids should be doing, but this gives them the opportunity to come out here and wrestle, get away from it all, even if it’s just for a few hours a night.”
And feel a little normal, even if the sport is still anything but.
Billings Senior's first matches are Friday. The Broncs will travel north to take on Great Falls High at 4 p.m and then Great Falls CMR at 6:30 p.m.