Kubasaki junior wrestler is first female to place top 3 in a Far East tourney
Stars and Stripes April 3, 2023
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Girls have been wrestling in DODEA-Pacific since 1998-99, usually against male counterparts and coming away with marginal results, since there’s no separate girls’ division.
Gwen Pantaleon, a junior at Kubasaki High School, defied that narrative in late January. She reached the highest heights of any girl wrestler in a quarter-century, placing third at 101 pounds in the Far East Tournament at Yokosuka Naval Base.
Pantaleon is the first girl to finish in the top three in a Far East tournament. And she did it in her first season as a wrestler and after coming back from a shoulder injury suffered in November while grappling with a 122-pound teammate to do it.
“I thought it was fine at first and then it started hurting a little more, so I kind of just stopped — drove home and then I realized that my arm wasn't moving anymore,” she recently told Stars and Stripes.
DODEA’s high school wrestling program is co-ed, conducted under international freestyle rules, featuring 13 weight classes: 101, 108, 115, 122, 129, 135, 141, 148, 158, 168, 180, 215 and 275 pounds.
“I mainly wrestle guys since it's a male-dominant sport,” Pantaleon said. “They kind of just group us together since we don't have that many girls who want do the sport anyways.”
That night, unable to raise her arm, Pantaleon’s father took her to the emergency room where an X-ray revealed a hairline fracture to her collarbone.
“It happens — it's wrestling,” she said. “Sometimes we get hurt; that's what comes with the sport.”
With her arm in a sling, Pantaleon showed up to Kubasaki’s wrestling practices “sitting on the side just watching them drill moves and taking notes,” she said.
About three weeks later and five pounds lighter, Pantaleon recovered and took to the mat at the sport’s entry weight of 101 pounds to compete in weekly bouts against neighboring Kadena High School.
Pantaleon and the Dragons traveled to Yokosuka for the Beast of the East on Jan. 21, then returned to Yokosuka a little more than a week later for the three-day Far East tournament.
In her last bout at 101 pounds, Pantaleon won by pinfall over Nicholas Faubion of Daegu Middle High School, South Korea, to clinch third place. She was apprised of her feat by one of the tournament organizers.
“A person that was running the tournament came up to me and was said, ‘Well you made history today’” Pantaleon recalled. “I was like, ‘that's kind of cool,’ and then the more I thought about it and the more people were congratulating me at the tournament kind of flipped and I was like, oh wow, I kind of did something crazy in a male-dominant sport.”
Janine Kunsch of Robert D. Edgren High School at Misawa Air Base is believed to be the first girl ever to step on the mat, at 115 pounds in January 1999. The first to place in any Far East tournament was Emily Albonetti of Osan American High School, South Korea, taking sixth at 108 pounds in the 2008 Far East.
Pantaleon had 12 matches during the season and wrestled against eight 101-pound competitors in the Far East tournament, according to her coach, Alex High.
“I only wrestled one female that day,” said Pantaleon referring to the last day of the tournament. “I faced five or six guys.”
Pantaleon said her Far East tournament experience was “kind of nerve wracking” as it was her first time traveling for the sport and that she got to wrestle new people, instead of the same guys and girls from Kadena every week.
“I was kind of shocked,” she said. “I wasn't really shooting to aim to break any records or anything. I didn't want to overwhelm myself with the idea of trying to get myself to first place. I wanted to take it slow, because I know that it can be like overwhelming for some people like especially me. I tend to overthink what I'm doing and get in my head before I get on the mat, so it was just like go with the flow treated like I was going against Kadena,” Pantaleon said.
Pantaleon was awarded Best Teammate at an end-of-season banquet at the Crow’s Nest at Camp Shields on Feb. 9.
“This was due to her constantly shouting encouragement from mat-side during her teammates' matches as well as always putting in extra time with her teammates when they needed help with a technique or just support while they were trying to cut a last little bit of weight,” High said. “She really exemplified the culture we are trying to create on the team, that of toughness, accountability, and discipline.”
Pantaleon’s father, Petty Officer 1st Class Phill Pantaleon, a hospital corpsman, is assigned to 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, Marine Aircraft Group 36 at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. Her mother, Christine, works at U.S Naval Hospital Okinawa on Camp Foster. She also has a younger sister, Callie.
Pantaleon said she enjoys the challenges that high school presents and that she wants to give it her all now for a better future and that her competitive nature was “embedded” in her by her parents.
“I was just raised to be competitive,” Pantaleon said. “I want to be a better version of myself so that I don't have to be working as hard in the future, you know? I want to work hard right now so I have a better life later on.”
Pantaleon takes advanced placement classes and is a cadet on the school’s Marine Corps JROTC drill team. In previous years she was on the school’s junior varsity basketball and track and field teams, but in her junior year found track and field to be “a little repetitive” and wanted “a little more challenge.” So Pantaleon directed her energy to the wrestling team after JROTC instructor Brent Cook, a retired Marine and former Kubasaki wrestling coach, told her the school’s wrestling team needed a 101-pounder.
“I would like to go to college,” Pantaleon said. “I'm applying for a summer seminar program for the Naval Academy. I want to commission into the Navy, and I don't really know what for yet or how I'm going to do it. I hope to do the Academy or go to an ROTC program.”
Pantaleon admitted she does not yet know what she wants in life siting that she is only 16.
“I want to leave high school knowing that I didn't waste it. I want to do everything I can to make sure that people know that it's OK to do new things, especially since I do a lot of male-dominant sports,” she said. “So, in a way, I kind of want to encourage more females to try and do that.”