By Hugh Lessig Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Erin Aragon, 24, is the first female wrestler in the history of the Apprentice School at Newport News Shipbuilding. Like other Apprentice School athletes, Aragon attends classes and works on the waterfront by day, helping build nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines for the U.S. Navy.
Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)
Before working out with the wrestling team last week, Erin Aragon sat down and told a childhood story that was difficult to believe.
She was maybe 10 or 11 years when she forced herself to order a meal in a restaurant, out loud, by herself, for the very first time.
"I cried when I did it," she said. "It was really, really bad."
A phone interview with her mother confirmed this story. Lisa Aragon said her daughter was painfully shy and could not walk into a new experience without being terrified.
"Ordering was a big thing," she said. "She could not order her own food."
How things change. Erin Aragon, 24, is the first female wrestler in the history of the Apprentice School at Newport News Shipbuilding. A national finalist in her first season, she's already preparing for season No. 2.
Like other Apprentice School athletes, Aragon attends classes and works on the waterfront by day, helping build nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines for the U.S. Navy.
Athletics are secondary, but important.
Last week, shortly after telling the story about the restaurant, she headed to the second floor of the school's athletic complex on Marshall Avenue to grapple with Micah Amrozowicz, her coach and a shipyard construction supervisor.
Amrozowicz said he'd like to find a few more Erin Aragons so the Apprentice School can take advantage of the fast-growing sport of women's wrestling.
"Hands down, I would say she learns faster than anyone I've ever taught," he said.
She's also learning how to weld. That's one of the most in-demand jobs in Hampton Roads, where shipbuilding and ship repair form a cornerstone of the economy.
How she got turned on to welding is another story that 1) shows how far she's come and 2) requires the perspective of her mom.
AN 'EXISTENTIAL CRISIS' Her shyness aside, Aragon was a top performer in school. Thanks to advanced courses, she graduated with a 4.2 grade point average, better than perfect. But she also wanted to grow socially.
"I needed to be out of my comfort zone to do anything," she said.
So she went to college in Flagstaff, Ariz., about 90 miles from home. Aside from an internship at Disney World, her experience wasn't what she hoped. Her grades dropped to Cs and Ds. She wasn't making friends. She had thought about majoring in journalism, changed it to marketing, then realized she didn't want to sit at a desk all day.
She called mom and blurted out that maybe she should just go be a welder.
For Lisa Aragon, welding was no frivolous matter.
As the assistant superintendent of a joint technical education district in northern Arizona, she saw how successful partnerships between local colleges and high schools propelled students into a skilled trade. If her daughter had thoughts of being a welder, mom might just make that happen.
"We had three welding instructors through the college that I partnered with," Lisa Aragon recalled. "I called the head teacher." Erin Aragon took to it immediately. She enjoyed the instructor's description of welders. He called them "confident recluses."
"You're hiding behind a mask all day, but people will see what you do," she said. "I was like, that's exactly what I want."
That prompted another move. Her older sister was a sailor on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and living in Portsmouth. Aragon decided to move across the country to Hampton Roads and start a new chapter.
She landed a job at a local Panera Bread, working the early shift, where her boss did two things that altered her course even further. He told her about apprenticeships and introduced her to the martial art of jiu-jitsu.
APPRENTICE SCHOOL BECKONS Aragon entered the Apprentice School in 2017 and continued advancing in jiu-jitsu. A shipyard supervisor came to one of her jiu-jitsu competitions, and that supervisor knew Amrozowicz, who had been trying to establish a women's wrestling program.
"I've always wanted to do it, but I didn't know how to get it going," he said. "It made it really easy that she was already an apprentice."
And pretty good at wrestling, as it turns out.
Although the school doesn't field a full women's team, Aragon travels with the men's squad and wrestles exhibitions when the Apprentice School competes against other schools that have female wrestlers. In practical terms, that meant she wrestled only a couple of women during the 2018-19 season
That changed earlier this year when the team competed in the National Collegiate Wrestling Association (NCWA) tournament in Allen, Texas.
Wrestling at 123 pounds, Aragon scored back-to-back first-period pins to advance to the finals against three-time national champion Marina Goocher from the University of Michigan Dearborn.
Aragon lost in the finals but said the overall experience was "overwhelming." Goocher is graduating, so Aragon can't face her again.
Not that she would mind.
"I gave her her fourth national title, I don't think about it at all," she deadpanned.
Her coach's take? "I still believe we could have beat her if we made it to the second period."
The transition from jiu-jitsu to college wrestling has taken some work. In jiu-jitsu, it's OK to be on your back to secure submission holds. In wrestling, being on your back is a shortcut to getting pinned. That aside, Amrozowicz said the switch has been positive.
"The sports really complement each other," he said. "And it's paid off."
ACCEPTANCE For the coach, one question that remained concerned other members of the team. How would the men accept a female wrestler? It turned out to be a nonissue
"Nobody, nobody, disrespected her in any way," he said.
In a company promotional video about Aragon, wrestler Chad Simmons said the difference is overstated.
"I don't like this whole thing about her being labeled a woman wrestler," said Simmons, a rigger apprentice. "You know, she's just a wrestler to me. She's just another person. She's just another teammate. She's another workout partner, just another person that's in here grinding with all of us. And I appreciate it."