DECATUR — When Cheyanna Bork announced she wanted to wrestle for MacArthur as a freshman, she encountered heavy resistance.
“I told people at school that I was joining the wrestling team, and they were like, ‘No, you can’t do that. You’re a girl.’
“I said, ‘Watch me.’”
Since then, the Decatur senior, who transferred to Eisenhower for her sophomore year, has continued to defy expectations and has seen great success at both high school and national levels.
Having recently completed her high school wrestling career at the 106-pound weigh class, Bork battled opponents both male and female to a 26-12 finish this season.
In addition, this year she won third place at the Illinois Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association (IWCOA) Girls State Tournament and second place at the USA Women’s State Tournament, wrestling at 101 pounds in both events.
Later this spring she will compete against some of the nation’s top female wrestlers for a spot on the USA Women’s Junior National Freestyle team.
“She is the most dedicated wrestler that I have had the opportunity to coach, male or female,” Eisenhower wrestling coach Jerry Seeforth said. “I have been at Eisenhower for 17 years — and we’ve had girls wrestling (since) my very first year — but Cheyanna is by far the best.”
And she shows no sign of slowing down.
But Bork hasn’t always seen this much success and support. During her freshman year at MacArthur, she recounted some wrestlers mentioning an open 106-pound spot on the team during cross country season.
“I weigh like 90 pounds,” she said she first argued. But after some persuasion from the coach, she decided to give wrestling a shot.
Bork, though, found a lot of pushback from her new teammates.
“The first year was the hardest, mentally,” she said. “I only won one match (that) year, and the boys on my team said ‘Well, it was against a girl, so it doesn’t count.’”
But after transferring to Eisenhower, she found the team dynamic to be much more supportive.
“This year, Caleb (Guise) and I have gotten really close,” she said.
Guise, a junior who advanced to the Class 2A state tournament this year, wrestles at 285 pounds. Witnessing the pair at practice is truly remarkable.
Evoking images of Mowgli and Baloo from The Jungle Book, they can complement each other’s weaknesses to intensify their training — Caleb’s size and strength against Cheyanna’s quickness and acrobatics make for varied practices that benefit both athletes.
Eisenhower assistant wrestling coach Mike Whiteman attributed Bork’s improvements to a change in morale and self-assurance.
“Her biggest improvement came last year,” he said. “It wasn’t necessarily her wrestling ability — it was her confidence after she qualified for the national team last year. “She saw other girls that want to train hard."
It lit a fire in her.
The benefits of that hard training really kicked in this season for Bork.
“Before this year, I didn’t even weigh a hundred pounds, so I didn’t even have to worry about it," she said. "But this year, when women’s wrestling came, I had to run a lot more and sweat a lot more."
In traditional IHSA wrestling, Bork wrestled at 106 pounds, the lowest weight class. Women’s weight classes drop all the way down to 96 pounds, however, and she currently competes at 101 pounds in women’s freestyle.
“Every time I’m on the scale, I bounce back and forth between 102 and 104. I have to go out, run a few laps, and stand on my head, and then get back on,” she said, laughing.
Whiteman said, speaking from personal experience, that maintaining the weight only gets harder with age. But it's a battle Bork will have to continue as a college wrestler — she's verbally committed to McKendree University in Lebanon, Ill.
McKendree is a member of the Women’s Collegiate Wrestling Association (WCWA), which is the governing body for women’s college wrestling, and currently has 38 member schools. The Bearcats finished second in the WCWA Tournament this season.
Participation numbers in women's wrestling are growing. Since 1994, female high school wrestlers have increased from 804 to nearly 15,000, according to the National High School Federation of Associations.
The result is more women's college wrestling programs. This fall alone, nearly a dozen colleges — including Lakeland University in Wisconsin and Tiffin University in Ohio — are adding women’s wrestling programs.
Bork also had the opportunity to compete under McKendree’s coaching staff at her national meets this year.
“I know that Sam (Schmitz, McKendree’s women’s wrestling coach) has the ability to push me and be hard on me and get me to where I need to be," Bork said.
Bork said her academic plans are to major in animal science, with a career goal of working with disabled animals. She currently interns at the Macon County Animal Control and Care Center and has had the opportunity to visit several animal sanctuaries.
In addition, she wants to minor in sports management — and coach wrestling.
But, Bork said, wrestling isn't for everyone.
"Everyone thinks it’s going to be easy, but until you get on the mat and experience it, you’re not going to know whether you like it or not,” she said. “You not only have to have the heart, but you have to have the work ethic.
"What really helped me is having everyone tell me I couldn’t (do it). ‘You’re a girl, you can’t wrestle’ motivated me more.”