Photography by REBECCA FELLERS

“Never let them see you sweat.”

 

Kristi Mann embodies this particular mantra every time she encounters a challenge. A military wife and mother to three sons – Tanner, Tyler and Tucker – she knows a thing or two about powering through. From her personal life and beyond, she kept these words at the forefront of her 30-plus-year career in special education.

 

Even now, after retiring from teaching, she dedicates a considerable amount of time to sharing that never-give-up attitude with a young generation of wrestlers that call Arkansas home.

 

As the Arkansas State Chair of USA Wrestling, the Little Rock native has spent the past 15 years championing the sport locally, while simultaneously working to ensure that Arkansas finds a place on the national stage. An athlete herself, Mann was a decorated gymnast in high school before participating in cheerleading at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

 

All this to say, she knows firsthand the impact sports can make.

 

“I can see the rewards from how they grow as a person,” she said of Arkansas’ young wrestlers. Even as her sons have moved on to other pursuits, Mann continues to support wrestling throughout the state. Her motivation? Seeing each athlete come into their own.

 

“It’s believing in them. It’s telling them that ‘Hey, you’re in the trench. Here’s my hand. Come on, you’ve got to get right back up there,’ ” she said.

 

Probably her favorite part of wrestling, and why she stays involved, is that there’s a chance for everyone to shine when they step onto the mat. “It’s such an inclusive sport,” she said, and Mann knows how much each achievement can mean to a young athlete.

 

“This is what is really cool about wrestling,” she said. “It’s very individual because it’s only you and one other person on the mat. You don’t pass the ball off. No one blocks for you. It’s all you.”

 

Wrestling: A Family Affair

 

Her journey to the mat actually began on a soccer field.

 

All three of her sons were athletic from a young age, and she describes herself as the perennial “team mom” as they bounced from basketball to baseball and other sports in between. At one point, one of her sons found himself on a soccer team without a coach. She didn’t skip a beat.

 

“I had to coach,” she said, firmly, “because nobody would step up.”

 

In middle school, wrestling came into focus, initially for her oldest son, Tanner. “Football was in off season,” she remembers, “and so we were introduced to wrestling.”

 

At the time, the sport was new to the state, but had a major catalyst in local businessman and Hall of Fame wrestler Greg Hatcher. Hatcher brought four-time NCAA champion Coach Pat Smith to the state and also founded the Arkansas Wrestling Association in 2005. Greg provided financial backing and brought awareness to the sport, while Pat dedicated himself to coaching young Arkansans.

 

“They are both such great supporters,” Mann said. But they needed help.

 

Mann found herself in a situation reminiscent of that long-ago peewee soccer field. As a teacher experienced working with parents and a military wife to a football coach, no less, she was familiar with working complex logistics. So began the short story of how Mann found herself at the helm of Arkansas wrestling.

 

“I was all beans and bullets,” she said, laughing. “All of a sudden I’m the state chairman … that position was just kind of cast upon me.

 

“I was this sole person standing on the national level, trying to get Arkansas recognized, saying, ‘Hey, we’re here.’ We’re a state and we’re wrestling.’”

 

Growing the program in The Natural State meant a lot of trips to Fargo, North Dakota, for the annual USA Championship matches. The best wrestlers from all over the country attend each year in an Olympic-style competition. Later on, Arkansas’ best wrestlers would also attend championship dual meets in Tulsa, OK, which are matches between two teams and provide an opportunity for wrestlers to participate in a more team-like setting.

 

That first year in North Dakota, Mann wasn’t aware of what she didn’t yet know. A prime example – she accidentally signed Tanner up in the wrong age division.

 

“That’s how blind I was, going in,” she said. “But once I hit the ground running, I absorbed everything.”

 

The story makes for a fun anecdote all these years later because despite the snafu Tanner won, a first for the Mann family and also a first for the state.

 

“That was huge,” Mann said. “There were actually a lot of people around his mat, going, ‘OK, show us what you got, Arkansas.’ ”

 

Mann was beyond ecstatic, but soon found out how much work there was left to do for Arkansas to get its due credit. At that first meet, for instance, she had to repeatedly correct the announcers for confusing “Arkansas” with both “Arizona” and “Alaska.” They couldn’t for the life of them figure out from whence this mysterious Tanner Mann appeared.

 

“I ran to the announcer table and shouted, ‘He’s from Arkansas! Arkansas!’” she recounted, laughing.

 

Mann made a distinct impression, enough to be nicknamed after the state she was leading to wrestling prominence. Even today, other wrestling supporters from across the country still call her “Arkansas” when they see her at meets, corralling young wrestlers to their prospective mats. It’s a moniker she wears with pride.

 

Following Tanner’s groundbreaking victory, Mann’s middle son, Tyler, would earn accolades in his own right, notably as the first wrestler from Arkansas to earn All America status in 2012. He managed to do it a second time, as well. Her youngest son, Tucker, came into his own in baseball, becoming an All Conference player.

 

Mann has always tried to embody a positive attitude, inspired by her father. She passed it down to her sons in the form of the family motto, KIPA: Keep It Positive, Always.

 

The Future of Wrestling in Arkansas

 

That first year, Mann accompanied a couple of coaches and 18 boys up to Fargo. In the past few years, that number has increased to nearly 70 athletes. And, in the past five years, girls have traveled to Fargo as well, with nearly 20 slated to go this summer. Arkansas has been one of the first states to support girls in wrestling.

 

“My boys have probably seen me cry five times in their life, and [including girls] was one of them,” she said. “As girls’ wrestling is exploding across the country, I just thought, ‘Heck yeah! We were one of the first here in Arkansas!”

 

Part of Mann’s motivation and support for girls in wrestling goes back to her early days as the state chairman. As mentioned, she was responsible for coordinating the logistics for traveling to Fargo and Tulsa. She was also responsible (and still is) for representing Arkansas at the national level when it comes to policies through the USA Wrestling.

 

It was at her first leadership convention in Colorado Springs that Mann realized she was the sole female in a male-dominated arena.

 

“At the Chairmens Council, we go over a lot of logistics that filter down to the national policies,” she said. “It definitely took about five years for everybody to figure out who I was. When you go to those, a lot of the other states have a delegation. In Arkansas it’s me, a delegation of one, and I’m the boss.”

 

A few years ago, Mann met another woman at the leadership conference, who happened to be with the New Jersey delegation. They became fast friends, as Mann was ecstatic to find an ally, and her new friend was relieved to find someone who could show her the ropes. Their friendship led to the opportunity for Mann to attend a lobbying event in Washington. The event was supported by Wrestle Like A Girl, an organization founded with the goal of making space for girls in wrestling.

 

Mann felt a drive and passion to support the effort in any way possible. Having spent time on the frontlines in wrestling, not only at the state but national level, she knew what it felt like to be the only woman in a room full of men. And she also knew what it meant to run circles around them.

 

“In Arkansas, when a girl wants to wrestle in high school, she has her own division,” Mann explains. “But in states that haven’t sanctioned a girls division, the girls have to wrestle the boys.”

 

Mann’s New Jersey contact asked if she would mind advocating for a girl from Alabama who didn’t have any supporters. She agreed. Upon meeting the young athlete, Mann noticed how shy she was, so she channeled her inner coach, taking the opportunity to give the wrestler a pep talk before meeting with lawmakers.

 

“I said, ‘OK, here we go. So this is what we’re asking for,’” Mann said. “We’re going to say, ‘Hey, I’m a really good wrestler. There are college scholarships out there that are waiting for me, but I’m only wrestling boys. They’re not going to see how well I can do.’”

 

Not only was the young girl empowered, but the lawmakers took note. Representatives from Wrestle Like a Girl saw Mann’s impact and quickly asked her to talk to more lawmakers, which she gladly obliged.

 

“I’ve never felt more powerful as when we were talking to all these men about giving these girls their platform,” she said.

 

As excited as she is to help other states in their cause, Mann’s truly gratified to be making a difference for girls in Arkansas who wrestle.

 

“Some of my girl wrestlers, they kind of watched me in Fargo, and they’ve noticed that there’s a woman, me, in a man’s world there,” she said. “And I feel like that has inspired them to not only just be on the team, but to lead the team.”

 

Mann’s passion for inspiring new leaders is a 24/7 pursuit, and she finds other ways to provide that leadership through giving back to the community. She volunteers with the Little Rock Touchdown Club and the Broyles Award. She also enjoys calling the Hogs with radio talk-show host David Bazzel on 103.7 The Buzz.

 

When asked about the future of wrestling, Mann smiles. Beyond wanting to see numbers grow and getting more girls involved, she has high hopes for what’s next.

 

“Some of them see me now and they’ve got their own children. And we’ve got new wrestlers that will call Arkansas home, on the horizon,” she said. “I’m Momma Mann to all of my athletes.” 

 

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