"Train like a Tar Heel."
Those words from North Carolina’s wrestling staff are what drew redshirt first-year Marisol Nugent to UNC. The women’s wrestling star and 2021 U23 All-American, who transferred from Lehigh University, is the first woman ever listed on an ACC varsity wrestling roster.
Originally from Boston, Nugent has wrestled since she was in elementary school and has competed since she was in eighth grade. Having grown up around siblings who wrestled and a dad who wrestled competitively at Boston College, Nugent knew she wanted to pick up the sport from a young age.
“It's a family thing,” Nugent said.
And while her gender hasn’t mattered to her family, it certainly mattered when she started competing.
“Every time I wrestled, people wanted to see if the guy was going to beat the girl,” Nugent said. “If I won a match, it was a really big deal. If I lost a match, it was as expected.”
Even as she continued to compete, it was difficult for her to obtain the right equipment.
“I didn't have wrestling shoes that fit me for a while because I was always wearing little boy shoes,” Nugent said. “I didn't have a singlet — I used to compete in a gymnastics leotard.”
As Nugent grew older, it became more apparent that not only she faced a different set of challenges, but so did women’s wrestling as a whole.
“I noticed a lot of disparities between men's wrestling and women's wrestling in regards to practice opportunities, competition opportunities and college opportunities,” Nugent said. “Pretty much everything I noticed, I felt like a lot was missing for the girls.”
And that’s when Nugent and her father, Joe Nugent, knew they wanted to step in and make a difference.
“My dad and I started advocating for a better framework of women's wrestling in Massachusetts,” Marisol Nugent said. “He became the state director for women's wrestling."
When Massachusetts announced its inaugural girls wrestling tournament, it became only the 10th state in the country to offer one, according to the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association.
While Nugent and her family continued to create change in her home state, she knew she wanted to continue her passion for wrestling into her collegiate career. But as a sport lacking in significant resources and prominent D-I presence, she was worried she would have to sacrifice her academic goals for those in wrestling — until coaches at North Carolina expressed that they wanted to add female wrestlers to their roster.
“To be able to still wrestle and get an education like UNC’s — I didn't think it was ever going to be possible for me,” Nugent said.
Tony Ramos, the associate head coach of the UNC wrestling team, played a key role in bringing more women to the wrestling program.
“I see a very bright future,” Ramos said. “The number of girl participants just at the youth levels is going up by the day.”
Ramos highlighted how wrestling has helped kids who might not have had the opportunity to go to college beforehand.
“I was a first-generation college student,” Ramos said, who was a three-time all-American wrestler for the University of Iowa. “(Wrestling) creates those opportunities that kids might not have had if it wasn't for the sport, and it's awesome to see it now trickling into the women's side.”
Zach Sherman, a redshirt senior from Islamorada, Fla., had nothing but praise for his teammate.
“Marisol and people like her, they're the pioneers that are brave enough to make the jump and be a part of a team where it's them and then a bunch of guys,” Sherman said. “But she's the one that's making this happen. There's very few around the country that are doing what she's doing. It's really good to help get NCAA women's wrestling started and on the map.”
Now with Nugent on the team, both Ramos and Sherman hope women will become even more integral to UNC's wrestling program.
As for Nugent, she spends her time doing two-a-day workouts with the Tar Heels, always staying ready to compete. Though she missed opportunities to compete at both the Midlands Championships and the Southern Scuffle due to COVID-19 cancellations, she aspires to go even further — to the 2024 Olympics.
“I want to be a world champion,” Nugent said.
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