A rough start made a determined fighter out of Rachel Koolstra.
Born to substance-addicted parents, she was placed in foster care immediately after birth. At 2, she found her forever home.
“I was blessed to be adopted by an amazing family,” she said.
Her family’s love and her own grit helped her survive bullying in elementary school.
“I started growing into myself in middle school,” Koolstra said.
That’s where she discovered sports, developed friendships, and discovered she was a fierce competitor.
In high school she attended her brother’s wrestling meet and a fire was lit.
“I told my parents, I want to do that!” she said.
After some initial hesitation, they agreed to let her try it. Most wrestlers start in elementary school, attending camps and meets. She was late to the sport, but with the mentorship of Akina Yamada, another female on the team, Koolstra quickly got up to speed.
“She and her family guided me through what it was like being one of the few females on the team,” Koolstra recalled.
Very few high schools have girls on their wrestling teams, so Koolstra had to wrestle boys. Often the only time she’d wrestle a girl was during postseason competition. Not all coaches, wrestlers or parents were pleased about the matchups.
“Sometimes I’d walk onto the mat only to find the other team had forfeited because someone was uncomfortable wrestling a girl,” she said.
She took it all in stride. She’d found her sport.
“It’s a very raw sport. I love the physical and mental challenge of it,” Koolstra said. “When you’re out on the mat, it’s just you and your opponent. It tests who you are. It was the sport I needed.”
It also was the source of a severe concussion that had a profound impact on her.
In her sophomore year, Koolstra was head-butted by her female opponent during a district postseason match. The referee didn’t call it. The match went on, but Koolstra has only vague memories of the next few days.
Three days after the match she was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury. Plagued by blurriness, double-vision and migraines, she ultimately got special glasses, which helped alleviate some of the symptoms.
Lakeside counselor Linda Mitzlaff has been amazed by her student’s resilience.
“She had some academic setbacks after the concussion, but she fought extra hard to keep up,” Mitzlaff said. “She said she appreciates her rough start because it developed a tiny fighter in her that helps her challenge obstacles.”
Challenge them she did – even attending Spokane Falls Community College as a Running Start student. She also continued wrestling, even though she was the only girl on the team her junior year.
“I’m very stubborn,” Koolstra said.
This year, one of her sisters joined her on the team.
Part of Koolstra’s determination to continue wrestling stemmed from her desire to earn a scholarship and wrestle at the college level.
Koolstra will attend Lindenwood University in Illinois.
“It’s one of only about 40 colleges with a women’s wrestling program compared to, like, 400 men’s programs,” she said.
She plans to pursue a degree in sports management. Her dream is to one day set up a program for at-risk children, including foster kids.
“I’d also like to be a coach for women’s wrestling and set up camps and programs for little girls,” she said.
Mitzlaff anticipates a successful future for this “tiny fighter.”
“She’s the kind of person who sets a goal and will take it on, making whatever adjustments needed to accomplish that goal,” said Mitzlaff.
Koolstra is thankful for the family that adopted her out of foster care and for the sport that fueled her passion.
“Wrestling made me stronger. It taught me how to advocate for myself,” Koolstra said. “You fall down, but you can always get back up.”
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