Leslie Hernandez has never tried to create an identity as a trend setter. She’s just a young lady who loves wrestling and never believed her gender should discourage that passion.
Along the way, the sport that has given her a lot of tough love on the mat through countless tournaments across the country — and guided her direction in life.
“Honestly, I don’t think I’d be the person I am today without wrestling in my life,” said Hernandez, who will graduate from Gainesville High this spring and go on to wrestle on a partial athletic scholarship at the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Ky. in the fall.
Hernandez’s success in wrestling isn’t measured in wins and pins. It’s about perseverance.
She took up wrestling in middle school and her interest in the sport grew after she saw a match involving her cousin, Tony Guillen, who wrestled at Habersham Central. Along the way, Hernandez picked up numerous mentors in her development as she found her calling and a place to call home with Team Georgia’s girls program.
Eventually, the opportunity to wrestle in college presented itself thanks to her active schedule in the girls wrestling circuit across the country. After Hernandez contacted new Cumberlands and U.S. Womens’ Cadet Pan Am coach Donnie Stephens early in the winter, he came back with a partial scholarship offer a couple months later to join the Patriots — one of 20 college wrestling programs in the country for women — in the fall. She has plans of possibly becoming a biology teacher in the future or possibly attending medical school.
“It feels amazing to be recognized for all the hard work I’ve put into the sport,” said Hernandez, who will also take part in the National Guard and receive academic scholarship money while in college.
To get to this point, Hernandez wrestled all four years of high school: three years at Johnson and her final season with the Red Elephants. Knights coach Richey Vickers encouraged Hernandez to pursue her passion after she showed interest in the eighth grade, which included meeting with the people that could get her in the right tournaments on the female wrestling circuit.
Her main influence, Robert Horton, is the Team Georgia girls coordinator. He made sure Hernandez got to the tournaments to get noticed. Wrestling in high school for Hernandez became a year-round venture with trips to Lakeland, Fla. for the Body Bar Team Trials, and again this spring in Texas; the Asics/Vaughan Freestyle Greco Nationals in Fargo, N.D.; and the Folkstyle Nationals in Oklahoma City, Okla.
She never placed, but gained valuable experience by competing in 70-80 matches per year.
During her senior year of high school, Gainesville coach Nick Niesielowski said Hernandez always displayed a love for the sport and had the respect of all her teammates. He said her primary training partner, sophomore Terrell Knight, went on to place fourth at the Area 8-AAAAA meet this season with the help of all the work they put in together on the mat.
“You can tell Leslie loves the sport and is always going to do it to the best of her ability,” Niesielowski said.
Before moving to Gainesville High, Hernandez had the chance to wrestle more extensively her first three years at Johnson. As a freshman, she started in the 145 class. With the Knights wrestling roster growing her sophomore and junior season, she saw less action on the varsity mat as she bounced back and forth between 138 and 145.
Despite not picking up as many victories as she would have liked, Hernandez was hooked on wrestling from a specific practice during her ninth grade year.
Hernandez said she was struggling to establish proper technique in her moves one day when emotion welled up inside her and she started to cry. That, to Hernandez, was a sign that wrestling was that important in her life.
“The bleeding, sweating and crying ... it made it a rewarding feeling,” Hernandez said. “I realized that I loved it.”
Vickers said that Hernandez also forged a positive relationship in the sport with Sarah McMann, who broke ground for women wrestlers with a silver medal in the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, Greece.
Johnson’s coach said that the impact Hernandez had in the program is having a ripple effect. Vickers has had a handful of female wrestlers come out for the program since Hernandez joined the program in 2009, a trend he credits to her influence.
“Leslie is an outstanding person and has the biggest heart of anyone I know,” Vickers said. “When it comes to wrestling, she works extremely hard.”