April 21, 2021

After Helping N.J. Girls’ Wrestling Gain a Foothold, Ayres Going to PU, Aiming to Grow Sport at Next Level

GOING TO THE MAT: Princeton High senior wrestling star Chloe Ayres enjoys the moment after she won the 114-pound New Jersey state girls’ wrestling title on April 10 at Phillipsburg High, joined by New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) representatives Howie O’Neal and Colleen Maguire near the mat. It was the third straight state crown for Ayres, who is headed to Princeton University this fall where she is looking to get a women’s club wrestling program off the ground. (Photo provided by Chloe Ayres)

By Justin Feil

Chloe Ayres was thrilled to win a third state wrestling title, but was even happier with the news that came a few days before it.

The Princeton High School senior was accepted to Princeton University, where she plans to continue wrestling.

“I would say probably getting into Princeton was bigger,” said Ayres.

“That’s been a goal of mine since fourth grade so it’s been a long time coming. The state title was definitely up there too.”

Ayres has a bigger platform in mind as she looks to the higher levels of wrestling. She will continue to develop her own wrestling, but also is fully invested in working toward opening Division I wrestling up for women to inspire young girls to take up the sport about which she’s so passionate. Opening up more opportunities for women to wrestle would be a bigger win than any on the mat.

“It’s definitely a process to develop women’s wrestling at that level,” said Ayres.

“It’s similar to how it was a process in New Jersey, maybe on a larger scale. But I think it’s undeniable that it’s going to happen at some point. It’s just a matter of time. With the growth you’ve seen in the state, you can be sure if we develop programs at the collegiate level, parents will be more likely to put their kids into this sport at a younger age and it’ll just grow high school wrestling as well and it’ll continue to build on each other. I have no doubt it’ll be happening. It’s just a matter of when.”

During her high school career, Ayres has developed into a role model on the mats. She did not get serious about wrestling until eighth grade, but has transformed herself into one of the top young wrestlers in the country. It’s a testament to her work ethic and an example of the possibilities for women if given the opportunity.

“Chloe is looking to be that person that starts something bigger,” said PHS head coach Jess Monzo.

“She’s trying to be that trendsetter for Princeton wrestling. Hopefully she’s going to continue her career at Princeton University. Hopefully Princeton can start a program for her and other girls in the area doing just as good things. This women’s program isn’t something that just popped in for a couple years. It’s going to stay for a long time.”

Ayres is one of two girls on the PHS team along with two-time state qualifier Ava Rose, who is a sophomore. Ayres has set a high standard. She was a perfect 26-0 against girls in her career, and also competed against boys in the regular season.

“Chloe put the time in during the last year,” said Monzo. “She traveled to get matches and she made it a point to seek out the best competition across the country knowing at the next level, she’ll see some of those girls later on. It tested her to let her know where she’s at and what she needed to work on and improve on.”

Ayres pinned Cedar Creek’s Riley Lerner in the 114-pound state final to close her career unbeaten in state matches. Ayres also won titles last year before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down competitions and as a sophomore in the first year that girls wrestling competed in its own division.

“The goals for myself were a little bit different this year just because it is my third time going into it,” said Ayres. “I really wanted to show what I could do. I’ve been putting a lot of time into the room even during COVID-19. I think this year my goal was a little bit bigger in that I wanted to show the level that I could wrestle on and showcase my technique that I’ve been working on. It was a little more technically focused than just getting the win. I also wanted to put on a show and make it interesting to watch and show that women’s wrestling has grown a lot in New Jersey.”

Ayres’ parents, Chris and Lori, have a lot to do with the sport’s growth. They worked with the NJSIAA to help girls to have their own state division as they saw their own daughter get more into the sport. They continue to push for more opportunities. Chris, the head coach of Princeton University wrestling, and Lori, who is an organizer of DI Women’s Wrestling, are looking to create opportunities for women to wrestle at the highest level in college. They also have a son, Atticus, who is getting more involved in the sport at the middle school level now.

“It’s sort of our family business I guess you could say,” said Chloe Ayres. “I love my family and I’m very close to all of them. To see how much effort my mom and dad have put in to creating more opportunities at the state level for women has meant the world to me. I’m so thankful for all that they’ve done for the sport. I think we’re going to continue together to build opportunities for women in high school and at the collegiate level as well. I’m really excited to see where that goes.”

Ayres is one of the bright young faces pushing for more opportunities for her peers and younger girls. There are 87 collegiate wrestling programs, but only two that are Division 1 for women. Participation numbers show that other sports with fewer high school participants have more Division 1 teams than women’s wrestling. Women’s wrestling is playing catch-up, but is considered an emerging sport by the NCAA.

“The goal is just to provide opportunities,” said Chris Ayres. “I hate to say this, but wrestling, the community, has done a really bad job of advocating for women. Most people would say we supported women. But we never really pushed for it. My new thing is you have to advocate for women. And you have to try to create opportunities for them.”

This fall, Chloe Ayres will join another woman, Demetra Yancopoulos, on the Princeton University men’s roster. They also will compete in the national tournament for women through Princeton’s club program. Ayres will also train at the New Jersey Regional Training Center. Opportunities and exposure are everything to the sport’s growth. Six years ago Chloe Ayres wasn’t even wrestling, in part because she didn’t see other girls wrestling.

“I really wish I had gotten into it sooner, but I didn’t really see it as an option for myself,” said Ayres.

“I think that’s part of the reason I’m so determined to show girls that it is an option so they get into it at a younger age and we continue to develop a higher level of wrestling for women. That’s definitely been an inspiration for me, seeing younger girls getting into it and seeing that this is their place and they can definitely compete in this sport and be successful. I didn’t necessarily see that when I was younger.”

And while Ayres is an inspiration to others, she is constantly inspired by those following in her footsteps. She is hopeful that others will join.

“It’s hard to be a girl in a male-dominated sport,” said Ayres. “It’s becoming easier and more welcoming but it’s still difficult in a lot of circumstances. I’m so proud of the younger girls who have had the courage to join their middle school and elementary school and even high school teams. It does take a lot of confidence and courage. I’m inspired by all the girls that are confident enough to be a part of it.”

Ayres wants other girls to take the chance to get involved in wrestling sooner. Having a more visible girls state tournament – even though this year’s was moved from Atlantic City to Phillipsburg High and spectators were limited – has been a big step that has helped at the state level.

“I’m so proud and thankful to be a part of the development of the tournament the past three years,” said Ayres. “The girls that have been brave enough to come out in this beginning sort of time, the trial and error time, have really set the stage for girls to join the sport at a younger age. The level of wrestling is only going to continue to grow. I’m so proud to have been a part of that. Seeing girls have a role model to look up to wasn’t something that I really had when I was younger so I didn’t really see myself as being in the sport despite being constantly surrounded by it because I didn’t have any role models. Now there’s an abundance of women in the sport and hopefully that will encourage more girls to come out for the sport. I’m really proud to be a part of that and to hopefully have given some girls the confidence to join the sport because it gives you so much.”

Ayres has witnessed first-hand the development of the sport. Her wins were dominant, a product of her relentless training program and added mental conditioning to foster confidence on the mat, but she has seen an improvement across the state in a short time.

“Not only have the numbers gone up, but I’ve seen such a difference in the level of wrestling that girls are presenting,” Ayres said.

“I think girls are feeling more comfortable and feeling accepted in the sport so they’re coming to their practices and the boys practices and there’s more girls practices as well. I think the level of wrestling has gone up so much. You see girls applying pretty advanced techniques that you definitely wouldn’t have seen in the first year as much. As time goes on, we’re going to continue to approach a high level of wrestling that exists in other states where the state tournament has been sanctioned a bit longer.”

With her high school career behind her, Ayres is focused on her own next steps on the mat as well. She won’t compete in folkstyle wrestling again after the state tournament, but will move back to focusing on freestyle to prepare for the World Team Trials in May. She will also compete in the national championships in Fargo, N.D., this summer before beginning her career at Princeton University, where she will be coached full-time by her father.

“I actually have a lot of experience with the dynamic of my dad being my coach because in the spring, summer, and fall, he’s my full-time coach,” said Ayres.

“I have some club coaches as well but I would say he’s my dominant coach. That’s where I learn most of the techniques I use. And he’s usually in charge of my
training schedule. He is amazing. He is really good at navigating the line between coach and dad and knowing when to be emotionally supportive and when to give coaching advice. It’s the dynamic that works best for me.”

Ayres’ father helped her hone her wrestling skills to become a three-time state champion. It sealed her legacy at PHS while introducing a new level of visibility for girls wrestling at the high school level.

“The numbers are growing tremendously,” said Monzo. “The girls are getting better and better. The sky’s the limit for that. She’s happy to be one of the first pioneers to start it. Her name might be in the record books forever, but there’s going to be some more accomplishments later on with some bigger names. We’re not going to forget the first or second one.”

Chloe Ayres would love to see more of the same happen at the next level. As she competes for her father and thrives in the support of her family, she will push to promote expanded opportunities for future women wrestlers.

“While I probably won’t have the full Division 1 experience, I just want other girls to have the opportunity honestly,” said Ayres.

“Even if it happens a year after I graduate, I’ll be so excited because we’ve been fighting for it for a long time and I want to see girls have the ability to compete at the Division 1 level. Even if I’m not a part of that, I know I’ll have the ability to compete and train in the sport that I love in college in anyway. I’m really hoping that opportunity will develop eventually for the little girls wondering if they’ll have that opportunity in college.”