Whatever that guy really said to her, word for word, is long lost. He was the first opponent Christina Luksa wrestled in her Greco-Roman debut, there on the mats of a big novice tournament. Luksa, a 141-pound competitor from Sunset Park, Brooklyn, had slipped the hold of her high school principal and joined the all-male team in her senior year. Now she was staring down a teenage boy who wanted no part of making history.
“He was trying to talk to me,” she recalls, “trying to break me down mentally. He was saying, ‘Come on, come on,’ shoving me around.” She pauses, a gap long enough to bury the rest of what he said. “I said no. I kind of went, ‘NO!'”
Wrestling is like that, a drama hidden in the crush of skin on skin and drowned out by the grunts and yelps of extreme will. Luksa, now a freshman grappler — and the first female one — at Hunter College in Manhattan, avoided a pin that day but was beaten on points. Her second high school match went better.
“I did a headlock and I threw him — in the first minute,” she says. “I didn’t think about it. I just did it. Everybody was surprised. Just threw him, and the crowd went crazy. I was looking at him, and holding him, and trying to pin him down. And I was like, oh, my God. I didn’t expect people to go crazy like that. I didn’t expect so much attention.
“Once I had him down, and he was fighting off his back from there, I’m not going to let him out. So I made sure I held on tight, squeezing like crazy, using all my strength. Made sure. I got up, I had tears in my eyes — that always happens to me — and I was just jumping for joy. My coach was going nuts, ’cause they had told me I would be the first female ever to win a match.”
She later heard that a boy she defeated cried, then quit his team. It wasn’t the kind of outcome she’d hoped for, since for her the sport isn’t about victory and defeat at all. For the record, at Hunter this year she lost twice and won once, against another rare female wrestler. More importantly, she finally got a chance to learn classic technique, with reversals and leg hooks and half-nelsons. She learned to hear the directions of her coach during a match, instead of going deaf to all but the sound of her own heartbeat. She learned to deal with being afraid: hyperventilating in the corner before her bouts, her mind twisting between a preview of the right moves and a litany of others’ motivations.
“If there’s no fear, then why are you doing it?” Luksa says. “It’s a rough sport, especially with guys. The other team, the guy I’m wrestling, what is he thinking? Does he want to basically murder me because he doesn’t want to lose to a girl, or is he going to play fair?”
And then there’s pain, the demon above all. “I have a good tolerance for pain,” she says, with characteristic calculation. “It’s all about pain. You’re trying to fight off your back, and they’re holding on to your arm or neck and cranking it, sometimes cutting off your breathing. If you’re going to give up, then of course you’re not going to be in that much pain. But if you’re going to fight, you’re going to be in pain. You’ll take that pain, and you won’t feel it then maybe because of the adrenaline, but after, you’ll feel it.” This season, against another woman, she battled from flat on her back for a full seven minutes, refusing the easy surrender of a pin. She says she’s not sure she’d hold out that way against a man.
Feeling more than welcome as the lone woman on her team, she sometimes fusses at her fellow grapplers to wash out their knee pads, which collect a powerful funk. White shirts worn to practice won’t stay white, she says, but will end up black with dirt and red with blood. She likes that, the sweat and the grunge. She likes the camaraderie, the way teammates grab hold of one another and slap hands.
One day, she sees herself besting a man for Hunter. “People now say they don’t want to lose to a girl,” she says. “But if I could be on this team, and I last for a year, then why is it so hard to believe that I could beat them? Of course I think about it, but it’s society. The way they put it, a guy shouldn’t lose to a girl. It’s just like that.”