OREM — A woman’s voice rose above the din of crowd noise and the blaring public address system during a recent wrestling match at Utah Valley University.
“Don’t let him turn you over, Isaiah!”
She scarcely stays seated the entire match, at times jumping up and down and shaking green and silver pompoms, leaning forward, all the while making eye contact with the UVU wrestler on the mat in front of her.
“Pin him down!”
“You’re going to win it, Isaiah!”
Who is this super fan?
She’s a Soviet scholar turned Microsoft executive.
She counts Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and BYU as alma maters after growing up in extreme poverty in the Philippines.
She speaks fluent English, Filipino/Tagalog, Ilonggo, Russian and French, and has a working knowledge of Spanish. She is an aficionado of French poetry.
But during wrestling season at UVU, Astrid Tuminez is a fixture on the sidelines, cheering on a sport she had never seen in person until she became the seventh president of Utah Valley University in 2018.
“When I first came last year and I was very new, I just couldn’t believe the sport. You’ve got to be fast. You’ve got to be strong and you’ve got to be completely brave because it’s so intensely personal. You don’t have five other guys doing this with you. It’s just you. You get in these very difficult positions and somehow you’ve got to think about how to get out them,” she said.
Tuminez regularly attends other sports events on campus, too, to cheer on “my Wolverines.”
She knows the athletes by name. She knows their GPAs. She knows their stories.
Just moments before, rushing down the concourse toward to Rebecca D. Lockhart Arena, she greets Cavit Havsa, a guard on UVU’s men’s basketball team.
“Hey, great 3-pointer last night,” she says. “He’s from Turkey. He’s a great kid.”
Entering the Lockhart Arena, she spies Demetrius Romero, one of UVU’s top wrestlers who is currently sidelined by an injury.
“He’s got a 4.0 GPA,” she said. “His girlfriend is an engineer.”
Tuminez said the more she learns about UVU athletics and athletes, the more she appreciates their efforts on the field of play and in the classroom.
“These student athletes are amazing. Eighty-eight percent of them complete college, an unbelievably high number. We have over 300 athletes and 33 of them have a 4.0 GPAs. Their cumulative GPA is 3.34. These numbers are numbers that many universities and colleges with athletic programs could only dream of,” she boasts.
For much of her life, Tuminez had little exposure to organized sports, although she is a runner and has practiced martial arts. Her son wrestled in high school last year and is now playing baseball, so she and her family are spending more time on the sidelines at various events.
While she enjoys learning the finer points of each sport, there’s something about wrestling that seems to have captured her imagination. So much so that her budding fandom was noted during her installation ceremony in March 2019.
Wrestler Matthew Findlay said Tuminez gets so invested in the matches that “at times, we’ve all thought she’s just going to jump on the mat and tag team it.”
She doesn’t get on the mat, but she leans in and offers words of encouragement such as “Show him the lights!” or “You’re the man!”
“I have a very intense physical reaction that I can’t help,” Tuminez said, unapologetically.
Jack Sunderlage, a former member of UVU’s board of trustees who wrestled in college in Iowa, has taught Tuminez some of the finer points of freestyle wrestling, including scoring and penalties.
Sunderlage has encyclopedic knowledge of the UVU’s wrestlers. He ticks off the names of wrestlers who are nationally ranked in the Big 12 Conference and notes that Taylor LaMont, who wrestles at 133 pounds for UVU, recently qualified for the Olympic trials.
“They compete in Greco-Roman wrestling in the Olympics. This is freestyle,” Sunderlage explains.
When Tuminez was first learning about the sport, the nuance escaped her, she admits.
If Sunderlage yelled something like “Take him down!” she’d simply echo what he said — only louder.
Now, she ventures out on her own, hollering from her front-row seat along the mat.
“You’re strong, Spencer. Come on! Come on, Spencer! Take him down!”
Sunderlage said he appreciates Tuminez’s interest in wrestling and student-athletes in general. It means a lot to the student-athletes that she attends their matches and games, he said. “It’s good for the university, too,” he said.
UVU’s Tanner Orndorff, a nationally ranked senior from Spokane, Washington, said hearing Tuminez cheer for him inspires him to wrestle his best.
“She’s just inspirational to me, like very inspirational. She’s one of my heroes. Obviously she’s not like a wrestling coach, right? It’s not like tactical advice. But just hearing that support, it just inspires me to keep doing my best even when things don’t look so good,” he said.
Competing in college wrestling is highly challenging because wrestlers who rise to that level have been competing for years, are in top shape and “it’s going to be a fight every time you go out,” Orndorff said.
“So a lot of times it’s whoever wants it more. President Tuminez is an example of someone who wants it more and we try to follow her example,” he said.
Orndorff said Tuminez’s remarkable life journey resonates with him: her rise out of poverty to elite boardrooms and now, a leader in higher education.
“She’s a fighter. She’s worked her whole life to be where she is. I personally resonate with that and seeing her ... after a long day of work being the president of the university cheering us on, it motivates me to do my best, for sure,” he said.
Just as Tuminez inspires Orndorff, she says each of UVU’s athletes move her, whether they are wrestlers or members of the women’s soccer team.
As Tuminez explains, it takes “practice, practice, practice, practice. Compete, compete, win or lose, and be back out there again.
“It’s a pretty great ethos. It’s a major commitment, and then it’s, ‘Go do your homework.’”