Jessie Lee was a Pioneer while attending Elyria High School. Now the volleyball standout has decided to be a pioneer of another sort.
After winning six matches at the USA Wrestling nationals in Fargo, N.D., last summer — the only wrestling tournament of her career — Lee has signed on with Tiffin University to be a member of the first women’s wrestling program in the history of Ohio.
Lee, who won the Miss Volleyball award as Lorain County’s top senior player in 2016, left for Ursuline College after graduation — and after the run at Fargo — fully committed to continuing her volleyball career.
“After my first semester, I didn’t think Ursuline was the right fit for me,” she said. “I think there were a lot of ups and downs. College was a game-changer for me. It was totally different than high school and I kind of had a wake-up call. After being the top athlete and top student, then you get to college and you’re just another fish in the pond.”
Lee decided to transfer to Ohio State, where she played a few weeks of club women’s rugby and landed a manager position with the Buckeyes men’s wrestling team.
It was a great experience, she said, but something was missing.
“It was hard for me not playing in a sport anymore,” Lee said. “I felt like I didn’t want to be talking about my athletic career like I was retired because I was only 19 years old. So I called (Tiffin men’s wrestling) coach (Joey Simcoe) and he got me in contact with the girls head coach (Britney Gadd) and I went on a visit. She told me she had an open spot for me and I just decided to do this. I’m really excited.”
Lee has a history of playing multiple sports — she also excelled in basketball in high school — and her earliest roots were in the pugilistic variety.
“My mom made me play really physical sports when I was little,” she said. “I wrestled for Elyria biddies when I was in second grade, I did karate at Mr. Dee’s in Elyria and I also played flag football when I was little. I grew up with four brothers and my mom said I was always crying so she needed to toughen me up and put me in hard sports.”
The reintroduction to wrestling happened thanks to volleyball.
“It started in the offseason. (Elyria assistant wrestling coach) Jack Gillespie was helping me lift for volleyball,” Lee said. “I would lift with the wrestling team and ended up becoming really close friends with all of them. I would hang out in the wrestling room after school and we’d roll around a bit just for fun, and some of my friends were like, ‘You’re like really strong for a girl.’
“I talked to the coaches and they were like, ‘You should wrestle for girls.’ It was kind of a joke at first, but then I thought it would be cool.”
Gillespie and Pioneers head coach Erik Burnett took Lee under their wings and she progressed rapidly.
“She’s a fantastic athlete to start out with and a very good student, just an all-around great kid,” Burnett said. “It’s been hard finding girl partners for her, but we found a few here and there and she found a few on her own, and of course she got to go to Fargo with Team Ohio and go against the best girls in the country and she did a great job, especially getting such a late start in the sport.”
Lee signed up for the Ohio state tournament after graduation, and was awarded the state title and a berth at the nationals because there were no other opponents in her weight class.
So Lee was forced into the unenviable situation of making her wrestling debut on the biggest stage possible at the national tournament.
“I had to learn quick because my first match I’m pretty sure she was like a world champ or something,” Lee said. “So (the coaches are) like, ‘Go out and be aggressive,’ and I was a little too aggressive and she beat me pretty bad. But I improved each match. I ended up beating an All-American in the next match and I was up 8-0 on a folkstyle (national) runner-up and I made a technical mistake because I wasn’t that experienced.
“In the (national) duals I went 5-1, so I really improved throughout the tournament. It was a really fun experience.”
The experience raised the eyebrows of many college coaches in attendance.
“I was pretty much known around Fargo as the ‘volleyball girl’ because I’m so tall,” Lee said. “The coaches had never seen me and they were like, ‘Who’s that?’ and they’d be like, ‘Yeah, she plays volleyball.’”
But the coaches weren’t able to talk with Lee due to her signing with Ursuline for volleyball. After she made the decision to end her volleyball career and transfer, Simcoe, who helped coach the boys team at Fargo, got in contact.
“He was a big advocate of girls wrestling,” Lee said. “He tried for five years to bring it to Tiffin and finally it’s going to be here next year.”
Now that she’s decided to pursue wrestling, Lee plans to use the rest of the summer to prepare for the upcoming season.
“We’re going to get ready for Fargo so we’re going to do some training at Elyria High School and I’m hoping to get her in for some of those,” Burnett said. “She has to play some catch-up a little bit and she knows that. Being a great athlete obviously is going to help with that. Hopefully we’ll be able to catapult her into her first semester and get her back into wrestling shape and she’ll be ready to go when she gets back to school.”
Lee said Gadd has given her an eight-week nutrition and lifting plan, and that she’ll have two months when she gets to Tiffin to prepare for the inaugural season. She’s started talking with some of her college teammates and said one of her potential drill partners is a national champion.
Putting together the offseason game plan has just whetted Lee’s appetite to get back to the competition.
“I’m excited that I decided this on my own despite any criticism that I might be getting, like transferring to three different schools within a year or people who don’t agree with girls wrestling,” Lee said. “A lot of coaches talked about the potential that I have. I don’t want to wonder about what I could’ve done. I just decided to take action and find out how far I could go. So I’m really excited to see how it turns out.”
Contact Shaun Bennett at 329-7137 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like him on Facebook and follow him @ShaunBennettct on Twitter.