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Candace Workman inducted into Brunson Utah Wrestling Hall of Fame

Pioneering wrestler helped pave the way for other female wrestlers to enjoy the opportunity to compete throughout the state

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Candace Workman became the first female wrestler to be inducted into the Brunson Utah Wrestling Hall of Fame.

Candace Workman became the first female wrestler to be inducted into the Brunson Utah Wrestling Hall of Fame at a banquet Monday night.

Uintah School District

Candace Workman never intended to be an activist.

But once the Vernal native fell in love with wrestling, her fate was sealed. 

And so, at an age when most kids are arguing about their favorite video games or planning sleepovers with friends, the fourth grader was talking with an ACLU attorney about whether she’d be able to wrestle in a middle school tournament with her teammates.

“I think at the time, I didn’t really think about the big picture of it,” she said of her first legal fight to participate in wrestling. “I didn’t think about, ‘Well, what about the girls who follow me?’ Or anything like that. I was just more concerned with being able to do what I loved.”

Workman’s determination would enable her to endure legal fights, signs on bathroom doors that said, “No girls allowed (Candace),” opponents forfeiting rather than wrestling a girl, and sexist insults from fans. Such adversity would help her become the first high school girl to wrestle in the state tournament, help her gain access to Team USA training opportunities, and give her a career in a sport that hasn’t always been welcoming to women. 

And Monday night that determination was honored as Workman, 32, became the first female wrestler to be inducted into the Brunson Utah Wrestling Hall of Fame.

In addition to being the first female to compete in the UHSAA state wrestling finals, she was region champion her junior and senior years at Uintah High. Other accomplishments include being a two-time University National Champion (2011, 2013); a U.S. Olympic Trials Qualifier Champion (2012); and finishing fourth at the 2013 World Team Trials and U.S. Open National Championships. She also placed fourth at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials.

“I was shocked,” Workman said of her response to learning that she was going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. “It wasn’t something that I’ve ever really thought about. I guess just because girls haven’t really been in the Hall of Fame before. So I didn’t really ever consider myself as a candidate for it. But I was really excited.”

And what made Monday’s banquet honoring her and Carbon High’s Tom Ramage even more satisfying is seeing how much growth there is in girls wrestling. Not only do hundreds of girls participate in wrestling in Utah, the Utah High School Activities Association sanctioned girls wrestling as a separate sport three years ago. 

“It’s really cool, especially where girls wrestling is now,” she said. “I think we’re going to start seeing a lot more girls wrestling at a higher level and have the opportunity to be things like hall of famers, and start working toward national titles and Olympic titles and things like that. So it’s just really cool to see how far it’s progressed since I was in high school.”

Workman said she realized at a young age that she wasn’t just fighting for herself. But her primary motivation was simply to chase her own dreams — which included wrestling for Team USA.

“I was worried that if we didn’t fight it,” she said of attempts to exclude her from the first middle school tournament, “the other people might start to see an opportunity to keep me out of tournaments, and girls wrestling wasn’t the popular thing to support back then.”

Workman said wrestling was in her DNA. Her dad was a coach and her brother wrestled. Like most young children, she tried every sport she could, and she said her parents thought wrestling “was going to be a phase” and that she’d settle on another sport.

“But it ended up being the one that I fell in love with,” she said. “It ended up being my passion.”

And her parents ended up being fierce advocates for her ability to participate in the sport she loved. Her high school coach, Gregg Stensgard, also advocated for her, and Monday night, he got to introduce her at the Hall of Fame banquet.

“It means a lot,” he said of what the honor means to the Uintah High community. “A lot of people didn’t think she belonged in wrestling. … But she had dreams.”

And, he said, because she was determined to follow her dreams, “she opened the door for many more female wrestlers.”

He said there were people who refused to see anything but her gender. Sometimes wrestlers would forfeit, depriving her of the chance to compete, and other times, they’d move a wrestler up in weight classes, thus forcing Stensgard to adjust his lineup.

“People did some things like that, that hurt her feelings,” he said. “She wanted to be just a wrestler on the team, nothing more. She didn’t want to be the girl wrestler on the team.

“That’s what she had to fight for.”

He said there were even wrestlers who tried to intentionally hurt her because they didn’t think she should be wrestling against boys. 

“She had to be more technical, smarter because she wasn’t going to be the strongest wrestler when she wrestled boys,” Stensgard said. 

Workman ignored the insults and the doubters and just embraced every opportunity that came her way. Stensgard talked famed Olympic wrestler Jay Robinson (known as J Robinson) into allowing Workman to attend his grueling camp. She did so well the first year, she was allowed to return the following year, becoming the first girl to do so.

Workman said the support has outweighed the pain of being excluded or unfairly targeted.

“I didn’t realize the future that I had in it until it was added to the Olympics in 2004,” she said of watching women compete on a world stage. “After I saw what wrestling could be for me, it opened my eyes, and then in turn it opened so many doors. It gave me something to shoot for.”

Workman graduated from Uintah High in 2009 and then she attended Northern Michigan University. She received a scholarship that allowed her to live and train at the Olympic Education Center in Michigan. She was in Michigan for a year, and then she moved to the Olympic Training Center, where she lived and trained for seven years. She competed with Team USA, and now coaches both boys and girls in Uintah’s club program, as well as the junior high program.

“I was very, very fortunate,” she said.

When she sees the progress that’s been made in Utah, she feels hopeful — and determined.

“It’s just joy,” she said of how she feels watching young girls competing in their own league. “I’m excited for where it’s at, and I think it still has a ways to go. We’re still quite a bit behind some of these other states that have had girls wrestling around for a lot longer than us, but it’s still crazy how fast it’s growing.”

Amy Donaldson is a contributor for the Deseret News.