Andrea Yamamoto: A wrestling pioneer

February 13, 2014 

chiawana high school wrestling girls

Andrea Yamamoto, top, a Richland High School graduate and national coach, works with Esmeralda Sedano during practice at Chiawana High School.

KAI-HUEI YAU — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

In 1986, Top Gun was the mega hit on the big screen, IBM unveiled the first laptop computer and the Challenger Space Shuttle broke into pieces after being only 73 seconds into its flight, leading to the deaths of seven crew members.

It also was the year a female wrestler stepped on the mat for the first time in the Tri-Cities.

“When I wrestled in high school, it was the 80s and the climate was rough,” said Andrea Yamamoto (nee Carstens), who competed at Richland High School. “People were pretty hot about my participation — they thought I was trying to make a social statement. But I wasn’t. I wasn’t a girl who wrestled. I was a wrestler.”

Though it was nearly 30 years ago, Yamamoto helped pave the way for female wrestlers today, and around the Mid-Columbia, that number reaches nearly 200 from Sunnyside to Moses Lake.

Saturday, Yamamoto will take three Chiawana wrestlers to the girls regional tournament at Wahluke High School in Mattawa. The top four in each weight class advance to next week’s state tournament, an opportunity she never got.

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, wrestling is one of the fastest growing high school sports for girls, and Washington is ranked third among states for girls wrestling participation with nearly 1,000 athletes.

“I never thought in my lifetime I would see this happening,” Yamamoto said of girls wrestling taking off. “Some people still are opposed.”

In small communities like Warden, wrestling is king ... and queen.

“We have our own girls coach, that’s how big it’s gotten,” said first-year Warden coach Brent Cox. “They took state last year. (The girls) have gotten to the point where the WIAA is looking at splitting the tournament into two — big schools and small schools.”

And like 28 years ago in Richland, girls wrestling met with a little resistance in Warden.

“We went through some stages where parents didn’t want their girls to wrestle,” Cox said. “We had a such a good program for the boys, why not for the girls? We have 17 or so girls in our program and the middle school and club teams for girls have taken off. I am surprised the bigger schools haven’t caught on and ran with it. The girls need a sport like this to give them self confidence like it does the boys.”

Now that the girls team has risen to prominence, it gets the same love from the fans that the boys get.

“We are a small town and when you do well, you get the community support,” Cox said. “We have a great fan base, and it’s just as big for the girls.”

Yamamoto, 42, is in her first season working with the Chiawana girls teams, which has a half dozen or so wrestlers. Though her numbers are smaller than what are at Warden, Sunnyside and other surrounding schools, she is hopeful the Riverhawks team will grow.

“One of the things those schools have is tradition,” Yamamoto said. “Smaller communities have rallied around the sport of wrestling. They are a model for a winning program. In years to come, Chiawana will be knocking off Warden and Othello. The challenge for any program is getting guys to come in and stay. I hope my involvement will help bring them in.”

Chiawana coach Jack Anderson is happy for the help.

“She is phenomenal,” he said. “She is a great coach. She has brought so much to our team — boys and girls. We feel lucky to have her aboard. She and her husband do so much to promote wrestling and she’s not getting paid one penny.”

If you are wanting to see Yamamoto’s credentials, she is all over the Internet. But she never would have gotten a chance to compete and promote the sport if not for high school coach, Dave Bennett.

“He was a great coach,” Yamamoto said. “He decided that any athlete who walked in the door had an opportunity. I was the only girl in the area, which put an unusual amount of attention on me and I didn’t deserve it — I was terrible. But when you are doing something different, that happens.”

Yamamoto graduated from Richland High in 1989 and went to Washington State University. She wasn’t there long when Bennett called to tell her she should get back on the mat.

“He had been to a national meet in Norway or Sweden and he said (The United States) were going to put together a team and I should pursue it,” Yamamoto said. “That led to six national teams and five world championships. I traveled all over the world.”

That was back in the day when USA Wrestling was not 100 percent behind the women’s program.

Four-time world champion Tricia Saunders helped organize the women’s program and Yamamoto helped turn it in the right direction.

“I was one of her soldiers,” Yamamoto said. “In 1994-95 we started to get funding and talking about the 2004 Olympics. That’s when things really took off for the women’s program.”

Yamamoto last competed in 1999, but she still keeps her hand in the pie, coaching when called upon. She will take 32 girls to Klippan, Sweden, on Feb. 25 for a freestyle tournament.

“You have to apply to get in,” Yamamoto said of the coaching pool. “You volunteer your time to escort athletes to events. They want more women coaches, that is the trend.”

Yamamoto, her husband Thomas Yamamoto — a three-time state champion at Richland — and their daughter Diane, 9, moved back to the Tri-Cities from the East coast in 2012 to be closer to family.

Thomas has been volunteering with the Bombers while his wife is at Chiawana.

Even though the Yamamotos are steeped into wrestling, Diane has yet to take up the sport.

“She is cutting her own path in gymnastics right now,” Andrea said. “If she wants to wrestle or not, it’s up to her.”

Girls Region 4 Tournament

Where: Wahluke High School. When: Saturday, 10 a.m. On to state: The top 4 advance. Admission: $8 for adults, $6 for students and seniors. Of note: Fans can watch the action on Look for the girls region 4 wrestling tournament.

Who to watch: Grandview will send two to regionals — would have been three, but the day before the district tournament, sophomore Viannei Perez — who was third at state last year at 112 — slipped on the ice, her knee hit a sprinkler and she had to have stitches. The Doctor wouldn’t let her wrestle. ... Sophomore Desiree Zavala, who was the state champ at 124 pounds last year, is at 130 this year. She is a two-time district champion. ... Junior Marizza Birrueta was the 100-pound state champ last year and has jumped to 106 this year. She is a three-time district champ. Birrueta, the Greyhounds’ 106 varsity wrestler, is 27-4, with all four losses to guys. ... Richland junior Tamika Pierce (106), who was 8th at state last year, lost the district title to Birrueta. She is the Bombers’ lone entrant at regionals. ... Sunnyside will send 9 to regionals, Warden advanced 14, while Othello will have 11, Pasco 4, Chiawana 3, Kiona-Benton 5, Connell 5 and host Wahluke 6.

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