Statesboro’s Kasey Baynon never thought twice about becoming a wrestler.
From the moment she walked into wrestling practice at Statesboro High School at 14 years old, her goal was not only to prove herself a true competitor, but to place at the state tournament.
The boys state wrestling championships to be exact.
Baynon began wrestling in the eighth grade after watching her brothers Dean and Aaron wrestle for years. She was involved in gymnastics for nearly a decade before, but wasn’t confident about her future in the sport.
She wanted something new. Something she was passionate about. Something in which she felt she was naturally gifted.
She found all three in wrestling.
“I tried softball. I tried cheerleading. I was doing track and cross-country running. I did that throughout high school, too, but just something about wrestling, it was different,” Baynon said. “It was like once I started doing it, it was like a lifestyle.”
Over the past four years with the Blue Devils — the last two she was named captain — Baynon didn’t take long to convince a few uneasy teammates that she belonged.
“In the beginning it was definitely proving myself that I was as tough as them, I could work as hard as them if not harder, but I was honestly fortunate with the team I got. ... They didn’t like getting beat by a girl, but I really think I was a natural when it came to it,” Baynon said.
“I don’t think they looked at me as a girl either because of how tough I was. I think they just looked at me as a competitor who was their teammate.”
While Statesboro’s wrestlers knew she belonged, the competition didn’t always agree.
Baynon has seen more than one parent, opposing wrestler and coach approach her matches carelessly because of her gender and even berate wrestlers that she defeated.
“I think I changed a lot of opinions with the sport to look at girls more as competitors than just as girls,” Baynon said.
If the psychological challenge of being the only female wrestler on the team and at many meets wasn’t enough, biological factors also were at play. After qualifying for state as a junior in the 2016-17 season, Baynon failed to place.
For her senior season, Baynon dropped to the 106-pound weight class and worked on new techniques to compete a different level.
“I was in the 113-weight class for the past two or three years, and they were just so much stronger,” Baynon said. “So I just had to take that into account and guys are just built differently than girls, so I dropped weight class. I’m still weaker than them ... but technique will beat strength.”
After failing to place at state as a junior, Baynon wrestled with Team Georgia Wrestling’s all-girls team — like she’s done every offseason for four years — and worked out constantly to keep her weight steady, her eyes steady on placing at state.
Statesboro wrestling coach Bo Vinnes, who never coached a female wrestler before Baynon, said Baynon’s dedication last summer is just a snippet of what she does year-round.
“She hit it hard and didn’t take any time off,” Viness said. “Went right into the spring, freestyle season and worked her butt off all year to get back onto the podium.”
At the conclusion of the 2017-18 season, Baynon qualified for the GHSA state wrestling championships and on Feb. 10 became the first female to place in any classification when she defeated Tripp Sauls of Villa Rica High School, who placed sixth.
Everyone in the arena took notice.
Viness said the announcer at the state championship alerted fans that the match was happening and had historic implications if Baynon won.
After winning the match, she was guaranteed a top-5 finish and the match was replayed on the arena’s big screen, something Viness hadn’t seen done for any other wrestler.
“That was something else,” Baynon said of her fifth-place finish. “I was the first girl to do that in the state of Georgia and it just felt so good when I did it. ... I know some other girls in Georgia had the goal, too, so it was kind of like who could do it first?”
After she graduates from Statesboro High School in May, Baynon will attend and wrestle for Emmanuel College, one of three Georgia colleges that offer women’s wrestling, along with Brewton–Parker College and Life University.
After she visited, she knew she was ready to be a little fish in a big pond.
“I went there and practiced and I got my butt kicked by the other girls and really, that’s the best thing,” Baynon said.
Just over a month after Baynon’s historic placement, the Georgia High School Association announced that Georgia will become the seventh state to hold an official girls state wrestling championship, beginning with the 2018-19 season.
With 250 female wrestlers already participating in wrestling programs in the state, Baynon enjoyed GHSA is promoting girls wrestling and creating opportunities for female wrestlers to compete on the highest levels, but she’s still partial to the path she chose.
The way she sees it, she competed with the best of the best, regardless of gender, and those wrestlers made her better. Baynon encouraged young girls to get involved no matter whether they compete co-ed or all girls because wrestling will change their lives.
“It will improve so much in your life,” Baynon said. “It creates just amazing sportsmanship and adds to personality that no other sport can. You have to have dedication, the will to work hard and get better and I don’t think it compares to any other sport. ...
“You might fall in love with it. That’s what happened with me.”
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