By CONOR NICHOLL
On Monday, two days before the 5-6A state championship, Lawrence Free State senior Madyson Gray followed her normal routine. She woke up just before 5 a.m. Gray, who lives with her father Darin, first greets the family animals. They have a couple of cats, a dog named Mia and a pig called Oreo. She gets her coffee.
Right at 5 a.m., Gray starts lifting. Darin jokes he has very limited space in his office and living room. The Grays have a variety of weightlifting equipment in the house. That includes a squat rack, cable machine, leg extension, leg press machine and aerodyne bike. She normally does a four-day rotation with two arm and two leg days. For Monday, she had an arm day that featured bench press and clean press.
Gray generally does heavier weight with less repetition to gain more strength. The 135-pound Gray has benched 125 and squatted 275; the latter betters the official state record. The daily lifting has occurred for Gray since after seventh grade, her first year in wrestling that produced two wins and a sub-.500 record. Wrestling has been her No. 1 sport most of her life.
“It’s mainly just because I’m really stubborn,” Gray with a laugh. “I don’t like losing a lot. Obviously, no one does, but I am very competitive.”
Three days later, Gray completed an undefeated career and became a first four-time girls’ state wrestling champion in Kansas annals. The first one came at the unofficial state tournament in McPherson in 2019, the last three KSHSAA sanctioned. Gray finished 95-0 against girls in her career and 114-12, including boys. Ranked in the top-five nationally, Gray has the most wins against no losses for any girl in state annals.
Onaga’s Morgan Mayginnes also won four titles. She captured three unofficial in ’17, ’18, and ’19 and the sanctioned title in ’20.
Last week, Gray, with her familiar dyed red hair for state, won her first three matches in the 138-pound weight class via first-period fall. In the championship, she pinned Emporia sophomore Virginia Munoz in 3 minutes, 27 seconds.
“The best wrestler in America – she has got a shot at that this year,” McPherson coach Doug Kretzer said. “…There’s not very many girls like her out there in Kansas. It’s very rare.”
As soon as the match ended, Gray celebrated with raising four fingers. Gray has competed for Team Kansas multiple years, all over the country, and wrestled in Spain and Japan. She was sixth at the National Recruiting Showcase in March 2021 for national All-American status.
“I have personally had to really re-arrange my life,” Darin said. “We talk about sacrifice and what Mady has sacrificed to get where she is at. As a parent’s perspective, unless a parent is willing to sacrifice in and buy in as much as their kid, you in as a parent, would be holding your kid back if you didn’t buy in as much as your kid.”
She has signed with Grand View (IA), the No. 1 NAIA wrestling program nationally. Grand View coach Angelo Crinzi has been impressed with Gray’s “toolbox,” the different takedowns and turns. Gray is in National Honor Society, has a 3.9 GPA, likes math and ceramics and wants to be a teacher. Madyson works as a wrestling official and helped coach some clinics for younger girls in Missouri and Iowa. The work ethic is part of a larger plan for the Gray family.
“As much as Mady loves wrestling, and if I would let her, every single day, day in, day out wrestle, we have approached this in a little bit different way than most people do,” Darin said. “We love wrestling, but it was also a means and ways of helping her get college paid for. She had to have a commitment to grades, and I really like pushed that, and pushed that and pushed that and pushed that. We have kind of had to approach everything as very business-like.”
Girls’ wrestling has continued to yield massive growth during the last four seasons. McPherson coach Doug Kretzer, who announced his retirement this February, spearheaded the movement. Multiple others helped, including Doug’s daughter, Mya, and programs at Washburn Rural, Paola, Baldwin, Pratt and Great Bend, among others. This winter, the Kansas City area easily had its best collective girls’ wrestling season.
“No matter who you are walking in the hallways at my school, we have got a place for you, and we need you,” Kretzer told SIK last year. “I am not sure some other sports out there are the same way. … We need them all, and they are equally important where they are that super athletic girl that’s 125 pounds, and a girl that’s more of a power-type of athlete.”
Additionally, multiple top wrestlers and programs have had talented girls overcome obstacles. While this is true in all sports, it’s highly consistent in girls’ wrestling. Nickerson’s Nikki Moore used wrestling as a way to overcome bullying. Paola’s Jordyn Knecht lost her biological mother at a young age.
Mya Kretzer, Moore, Knecht and Gray are the four who never lost to a Kansas girl in high school. This weekend, Moore, a Nickerson graduate, earned Heart of America Women’s Wrestler of the Year for NAIA Baker, a top-10 national team.
“Mady has followed in those footsteps of those other trailblazers that have created that path,” Kretzer said at state this week. “She is doing the same things, showing all the rest of the girls around the state that to be a wrestler during wrestling season is one thing. You are going to have a lot of accomplishments, but to be an elite level wrestler, got aspirations to be a high-level college wrestler, get on the Olympic path maybe – she’s great.”
Kretzer has coached and watched Gray at various major national events. He said Gray has “a lot of grit” and came back from losses to create “an even stronger flame” to become the best.
“And it’s all because of hard work,” Kretzer added. “Nothing comes free in life. You have got to pay the price, and she has done that. I would say that that’s what’s stood out to me. It’s a path that’s worn – just not very much.”
Washburn Rural girls’ wrestling coach Damon Parker has been an excellent ambassador for mental health and overcoming life’s obstacles. WR has finished first, first and second at state the last three years. While Parker and Gray have not spoken about life, the two did have a conversation at the Missouri vs. Kansas all-star duals last year.
“A lot of times you will see kids that are stellar athletes whether they are wrestlers or whatever other sport, and they have got kind of a chip on their shoulder, and they are not always the most pleasant people to be around,” Parker said. “But Madyson Gray, she is just the consummate teammate. … You will see her sitting mat side for every single match of her teammates cheering her butt off, and always there with a hug or a high-five depending on what the kid needs when they come off the match. She has got a great future in the sport, and I hope that she decides to go into the coaching because she would be great at it.”
Many wrestlers have found their best sport on the mat, including Gray. More than 1,500 girls competed in Kansas high school wrestling this winter.
“As a coach, I have started seeing a common denominator in kids that seemingly excel in wrestling,” Darin said. “I am noticing more and more the kids that have the ‘picket fence upbrings’ don’t seem to excel in wrestling as much as the kid that have had some turmoil. It’s interesting that these kids find this place in wrestling that that’s where they can escape, but they also very feel comfortable in wrestling.”
“It’s just an interesting dynamic that I have watched for five years straight now,” he added. “I would be willing to bet if you were to end up interviewing 100 kids, I would say 80 percent of those kids that are successful don’t have your typical upbringing. There’s something in their upbringing that has brought them to that pinnacle.”
Madyson started in seventh grade as a “random decision.” She didn’t do a lot of sports growing up.
“It seemed like it would be a fun way to make friends,” Madyson said.
However, Madyson found out that girls’ wrestling wasn’t KSHSAA sanctioned and still had low numbers. Even with the few wins, Madyson had fun and “fell in love with the sport.”
“It really honestly comes back around to Mady’s commitment,” Darin said.
After the seventh-grade season, Madyson started to wake up at 6 a.m. and go to the middle school track for workouts with her dad. For Madyson that eventually became “not enough.” She started to wake up at 5 a.m. and went to the gym and lifting weights. Now, Madyson has the weightlifting equipment at home.
“It’s very challenging mentally, which I think has helped me a lot in my life outside of wrestling,” she said. “You get however much you put into it, so if you work your butt off in practice, you are going to see the results in the future during your matches and all that stuff. It just prepares you for life.”
For the first 18 months, Darin joined his daughter on the workouts. Since then, Madyson generally works out on her own. In the Gray household, Madyson and Darin have accountability sheets. Every month, Madyson makes a list of what she expects from her father and vice versa. They pull out the sheets if one feels a commitment is not being upheld.
“I started breaking away and not getting up with her,” Darin said. “Because of the fact that it’s about her and not about me.”
This season, the Lawrence school district had its own girls’ wrestling team for the first time. Darin coached the squad as a Rule 10. Darin, though, gives plenty of credit to other coaches for Madyson’s success, especially Travis Phippen with the Lawrence Elite Wrestling club.
“You have to fully commit,” Darin said. “In doing so, making that commitment, I have kind of had to do without, and put Mady and her wrestling first. So there’s definitely been some really rough times.”
Free State and LHS practiced at Lawrence High School. The girls started with seven and finished with four. Madyson greatly enjoyed the camaraderie the girls presented. After she won her 100th career match, the girls surprised her with a banner and celebration. Of her 95 wins against girls, 93 came by fall or technical fall. She defeated Gardner-Edgerton’s Shelby Davis in a major decision.
“I am not a very pretty technical wrestler for sure,” Gray said. “I like to think that I have a pretty good gas tank. I just can go, go, go. Obviously, there’s a specific type of wrestling that I have. I love wrestling on my feet and hand-fighting, so more freestyle for me, fast and score points.”
On Jan. 29, she had the closest match of her career in a 4-0 decision against Hoxie’s Marissa Porsch at the Washburn Rural meet, arguably the best girls’ wrestling match all season. The pair were roommates at the Team Kansas duals last summer.
That yielded Porsch’s only loss, who won the 138-pound 4-1A state title. Gray earned Most Outstanding Wrestler at Washburn, the biggest girls’ wrestling tournament in Kansas history.
“It was a good match,” Hoxie coach Mike Porsch said. “We had opportunities to score, and she scored on her opportunities, and we didn’t on Marissa’s. That what’s you go for – those experiences and to be in tight matches.”
Two years ago, she bested Great Bend’s Bre Ridgeway at the inaugural all-classes state wrestling championship. In her career, Ridgeway lost four total matches and is Kansas’ all-time leader in girls’ wrestling wins.
“She is strong, she is technically sound,” Kretzer said of Gray. “Mentally strong, and you have got to put all those things together.”
Gray has a goal to wrestle on the senior level. In April, the Grays are going to Las Vegas to wrestle the US Open. Darin asked Madyson if she wanted to do under-23 or under-20. Madyson wanted to do the senior level to see where she would stack up against world team members and Olympians.
“It’s been commitment, commitment, commitment, and that to me is probably the most enduring thing throughout the years,” Darin said. “She’s set goals, and she chases things.”