Forged from a dream: Rapid City student was impetus for DWU women's wrestling program
“What she did at DWU and in Mitchell is just quite a testament to her as a person,” former SDSU wrestler and Madeleine Sargent's high school coach Travis King said. “Her passion and motivation was shown in that.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is the first in a periodic series on the creation of the Dakota Wesleyan women’s wrestling program.
MITCHELL — Madeleine Sargent has always wanted to get on the mat.
Ever since her days at Rapid City Stevens High School, wrestling has been an interest of hers. And it's an interest that she’s brought to Dakota Wesleyan, spearheading the creation of the DWU women’s wrestling program — the first collegiate women’s wrestling program in South Dakota.
The story is a winding one. Of course it is, given that Sargent came to DWU to play softball.
Wrestling at the collegiate level was an afterthought but the flame for putting on the headgear and competing on the mat never went out. Once it became clear women's wrestling might have a future at DWU, she made it happen, out of nothing but a Powerpoint and a dream.
In that light, it's fitting she’s the first to compete with the Tiger logo on her singlet.
High school days
Late in her freshman year of high school and into her sophomore year, Sargent wanted to wrestle more than ever. She was on the softball team for Stevens and her coach, Travis King, just so happened to be a former national champion wrestler at South Dakota State and the wrestling coach for Stevens.
It started as just hanging around the team as a manager, but Sargent quickly realized that wouldn’t be enough. As a junior, King let her sit in on practices, and after convincing her dad, Sargent was all in to start grappling.
“My dad kind of found out I was wrestling and he was like, ‘You know what? Instead of just being in, we're either going to do it or we’re not,’” Sargent recalled. “He started working with me one-on-one after hours to get me caught up to where everybody else was their junior year of high school. And then my senior year was full-swing competition.”
While she was in high school, King saw her passion, mentioning that she worked hard and had a “great attitude” with “great effort.” And when she competed in high school, she did folkstyle wrestling — a contrast to the freestyle wrestling that’s used in collegiate competition.
But Sargent was recruited to DWU for softball, and she was OK with giving up wrestling as she went to college. As her freshman year started, Sargent was focused solely on softball. But that didn't last long and Sargent wanted to get back into wrestling.
With friends on the men’s wrestling team, though, a similar situation to what happened in high school took place. She hung around the team but soon realized that just being around the team wouldn't be enough.
“I missed the (wrestling) world too much,” Sargent remembered about her days before she wrestled at DWU. “I have to be able to get back into it, one way or another.”
But of course, Dakota Wesleyan didn’t have a women’s wrestling team. Nor did any other school in South Dakota, and 2019 was the first time the Committee on Women’s Athletics recommended emerging sports status to the NCAA, with the NAIA not following suit until 2022.
So Sargent took matters into her own hands.
With the help of her parents, Sargent, who was still a freshman, put together a 20-minute presentation to pitch the idea of a women’s wrestling team to Athletic Director Jon Hart, as well as then-President Amy Novak and Executive Vice President Theresa Kriese. And it just so happened to be the perfect storm.
“We’ve always been in sport-exploration mode. … So we did feel like it was time to bring on another sport at Dakota Wesleyan,” Hart said. “At the same time, Madeleine came on board and she pitched that to us and we felt like a lot of the things that we were looking for from a sport-addition standpoint really aligned with what she brought to the table.”
The reaction of her pitch was more than Sargent expected, with Novak and Kriese coming to the meeting prepared with articles and notes about women’s wrestling.
“She really reaffirmed all of the things we were looking for," Hart said. "… So I really do feel like she was a closer in that regard to getting us to where we want to be and ultimately adding it as a sport.”
All coming together
Once the university decided to add women’s wrestling as a sport in September 2021, it was only the beginning. There still needed to be a coach search, which Sargent helped with. And after a bit of waiting, DWU found John Lynch in February, with Lynch being a former national qualifier and assistant coach at Northwestern College.
But it wasn’t in time for last year’s season, so Sargent wrestled unattached to Dakota Wesleyan as a sophomore, traveling to open events but not wearing the Tiger on her singlet.
Still, though, she worked with men’s assistant coach Kevin Kelly, often after a day full of softball workouts and practices, where she remembers practicing until she was drained.
“She’d be exhausted,” Kelly recalled of his workouts with Sargent. "She's coming to work out with me after (softball workouts earlier in the day). She was doing like three workouts (a day). That's her determination to do this.”
After wrestling for a year unattached to Dakota Wesleyan, Sargent got her first taste of what it was like to represent the Tigers as a wrestler on Nov. 5.
Competing in the Women's Pointer Open in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, she officially represented DWU as a women’s wrestler for the first time, though leading up to the event she was admittedly nervous.
"It's nerve-wracking, but it's amazing; I'm so excited," Sargent said prior to her first event.
Now she has two events under her belt, as she also competed in the Waldorf Open in Forest City, Iowa, a week later on Nov. 12.
“It felt really good to show everything that I've worked for is to present Dakota Wesleyan on my chest,” Sargent added after having competed in two events. “That was really cool that I got to do that.”
For Lynch, who watched her wrestle at an event unattached last year, seeing all the hard work come to fruition in a match brought about some nerves along with excitement.
“(It was) exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time,” Lynch said of watching Sargent compete. “As a coach, it’s my job to make sure that she’s prepared to go out there. … I probably get more nervous than she does sometimes.”
Though she’s still searching for her first win after two events, she believes she's improving and making progress each time out and is hopeful it translates to January — the next time she’ll compete.
She’s most confident right now in her snapdowns — a move that USA Wrestling describes as something "usually, done with a head tie, coaches teach athletes to fake at the legs and quickly follow the leg fake with a snapping motion on the head-tie." It's an area she said her dad taught her about even before she started wrestling, while Lynch noted she’s improved vastly at noticing things faster on the mat.
But regardless of the outcome, Sargent was soaking in the chance to wrestle for Dakota Wesleyan, and really enjoyed practice the night before competing and warming up with her coach.
“You're breaking everything down and you're getting mentally prepared and you can just see it. And you're taking it all in in those moments,” she said. “You can just see the open mats and you can see what you're working for.”
More lies ahead
Being a junior at DWU, Sargent will have two years to officially wrestle for the Tigers, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to stop being around. After graduation, her goal is to go to graduate school to study physical therapy.
But after that, she thinks she’ll be close enough to the area to get a front-row seat to watch the DWU program grow. Her goal in the short term is to see the program grow while she’s still enrolled at DWU and the program having a full roster by the time she graduates.
“Actually being able to participate in duals and getting that opportunity for as much mat time as possible,” Sargent identified as her goals. “And even if I don't get that opportunity to do things like be able to do postseason stuff like nationals, just because we don't have enough girls, I would love for other girls to be able to get that opportunity.”
No matter what the program looks like when Sargent leaves DWU, she will be a pioneer for women's wrestling in South Dakota, having started the first collegiate program. Other institutions have followed suit, with the University of Sioux Falls set to have its women’s wrestling program start up in fall 2023.
“What she did at DWU and in Mitchell is just quite a testament to her as a person,” King said. “Her passion and motivation was shown in that.”