Utah’s Sage Mortimer is one of the top female wrestlers in the country, but she still wants to take on the boys

The American Leadership Academy grappler helped get girls’ prep wrestling sanctioned in Utah, but is disappointed she has to stick to female foes in her senior year.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sage Mortimer, the best female wrestler in Utah and one of the best in the country, at American Leadership Academy, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021.

Sage Mortimer used to watch as her older brother’s youth wrestling team played Sharks and Minnows during practices. The premise of the game is a group of kids (minnows) runs from one side of the room to the other while a lone person (the shark) tries to take them down one by one as they run by, turning the minnows into sharks. Last minnow standing, wins.

Mortimer loved the look of the game, and pleaded with her father — a volunteer coach on her brother’s team — to let her play. But he wouldn’t allow it. So Mortimer thought of a solution: If she joined the wrestling team, her dad couldn’t stop her.

That started it all.

Mortimer soon realized she had a knack for the sport, a notion confirmed by Craig LaMont, coach of the Champions Wrestling Club in Utah, after just her second match under him when she was about 4 or 5 years old. She’s now considered the best female high school wrestler in the state, and ranked second in the country at 106 pounds. She’s also multiple-time national champion and has traveled all around the world showcasing her talents.

Mortimer, 18, has largely been a girl in a boys’ world. When she started wrestling, almost no girls wrestled in Utah. And as her skills improved, she had to travel outside the state to find good competition with other girls in her weigh class. Back home, she had to wrestle boys if she wanted to get better.

But wrestling the opposite sex never seemed to bother her.

“She was never afraid of boys at all,” LaMont said. “She just liked to beat them up.”

In fact, Mortimer likes to beat up just about everyone on the mat. Friends, teammates, coaches and even prior opponents describe Mortimer’s wrestling style as aggressive, relentless, fierce or something synonymous.

“She has a mean headlock,” Brock Morris, 132-pounder of Maple Mountain High, said.

“The way she wrestles, she’s ruthless,” said Brian Evans, 138-pounder of Beaver High. “There’s no quit to her. She just never stops.”

“If you meet her with aggression, she comes back 10 times stronger,” said Brooklyn Pace, a 120-pound female wrestler for Copper Hills High.

Mortimer’s feisty side might actually come out more during practices. Pace, who is her practice partner at times, said Mortimer is much more aggressive in those settings.

“I think if she was that aggressive toward me in a real match, she’d get called for unsportsmanlike conduct,” Pace said with a laugh. “In practice, she just pounds me without stopping at all. But I love her for it because she helps me get better.”

Mortimer is well-versed in various styles of wrestling, but her favorite is Greco-Roman. That’s a style that allows her to throw her opponent, an experience Evans knows all too well. He and Mortimer used to wrestle against each other in practice when they were younger and similar in weight. He remembers getting thrown by her feeling “graceful.”

“I was stronger than her, but she made it work,” Evans said. “She got the position set up perfectly just so that she could throw.”

Wrestling is a naturally violent sport, but Mortimer has something not many others have.

“Sage is an intense person,” LaMont said. “She loves to fight. She loves to be aggressive. And it’s in her nature. She didn’t have to learn it. It’s just in her natural, instinctive nature. And most girls in wrestling, quite frankly, aren’t like that. In fact, most boys aren’t like that in wrestling.”

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sage Mortimer, of ALA, bends the leg of Kierstien Bush, of Bonneville as she controls her during the All-Star Duals wrestling at Utah Valley University's UCCU Center in Orem Tuesday January 9, 2018.

Off the mat, Mortimer has an alter ego. She’s gregarious, always out with her friends or spending time with her siblings. Justyn Mitchell, Mortimer’s teammate at the American Leadership Academy, said she is energetic, bubbly and “kind of a spaz.”

“It’s like she has a sugar high all the time,” Mitchell said.

Mortimer describes herself as a “tomboy.” She tried cheerleading as a young girl, but that didn’t last long because she considered it a “girly” sport. She played club soccer until junior high, when she was advised by her coaches to pick between that and wrestling so she could give her all to one sport. She chose wrestling because she felt she would get more out of it.

Mortimer said she started receiving scholarship offers to wrestle after she signed up for recruiting websites, but it surprised her that no one called before then. She figured her national status in the sport coupled with her being old enough to field recruiting calls would have led to more initial interest.

But since then, Mortimer has been in contact with plenty of schools. Among them are King University, North Central College, Oklahoma City University, Augustana College and the University of Saint Mary.

Girls’ wrestling was sanctioned by the Utah High School Activities Association this school year. Jon Oglesby, an assistant director of the association, said approximately 500 girls are participating in the sport.

But with the UHSAA’s decision came deep disappointment for Mortimer, who for years has wanted to become the first girl in Utah to win a state championship against a boy. The only other woman who came close was Candace Workman, a Uintah High alumna who finished second in the state wrestling tournament in 2008.

When other states sanctioned the sport, LaMont said, a grandfather rule was incorporated that allowed a girl who had previously wrestled boys to choose if she wanted to wrestle girls or boys. Such a clause was not included by the UHSAA, added LaMont, who was heavily involved in lobbying for the sport to be sanctioned for girls.

Mortimer supports and feels excited about the growth of girls’ wrestling in Utah, so much so that she plans to coach in the future. One of her younger sisters wrestles and does so mostly against other girls, and she’s glad her sibling won’t have to face the tribulations of being being a girl in a boys’ world like she did.

Still, Mortimer has mixed feelings about the situation. She said she felt unmotivated in the weeks after the sanctioning, and thought an exception should be made for her because it was her senior year and she’s likely the only girl who really desires to wrestle boys. She even attended a hearing to plead her case, but to no avail.

“It feels really unfair to me personally that they aren’t letting me wrestle boys because — and I’m not trying to be cocky when I say this — I was one of the first girl wrestlers to wrestle in Utah,” Mortimer said, “and I feel like that sparked something and I feel like that’s a huge reason why there’s as many girls as there are today.”

Other wrestlers agree with Mortimer in regard to her impact on the sport. Justyn Mitchell, Mortimer’s teammate at the American Leadership Academy, said her influence allows other girls who may have previously been afraid to wrestle to try it. Pace said Mortimer’s ability to show out at national championship events in Fargo, North Dakota, is evidence enough.

“I think she definitely shows that girls belong in the sport,” Pace said.