By JEREMY HINES
In 1994 Indiana female wrestling was in its extreme infancy. So when Katie (Downing) Kriebel and her dad met with Pendleton coach Dave Cloud about joining the high school team – she was a little nervous.
Coach Cloud told her dad that he had never had a female wrestler before.
“Dad told him that he had never had a daughter that wanted to wrestle before, either,” Kriebel said. “So, he told him that they were in the same boat.”
Cloud agreed to let her wrestle. That would be the start of many firsts for coach Cloud where Kreibel was involved.
Kriebel was a good athlete. She played softball and trained in Judo. In fact, it was her love of Judo that got her curious about wrestling.
“I trained with the boys in Judo,” Kriebel said. “It wasn’t a big deal in Judo. But, I noticed that a lot of boys that didn’t know any Judo at all, that were wrestlers, came over and were very good right off the bat. I decided I needed to learn wrestling, too.”
She wasn’t quite prepared for the rigors of the sport as a high school freshman. In her very first practice she threw up during conditioning. She didn’t want to appear weak, so right after she vomited she started to run. She made it through the first practice, and won over some of the guys who were questioning her toughness.
“That first week of wrestling was the first time in my life that I had tried something and didn’t know whether I could do it or not,” Kriebel said. “I was hooked. Once I made it through the first week and I knew I wasn’t going to die, I loved it. I loved the challenge of it.”
Kriebel didn’t fare well early on – but she was battling more than just her opponent across the mat. Her first match was a junior varsity contest. When she walked out on the mat the opposing team and their parents were laughing noticeably at her.
“I didn’t like that,” Kriebel said. “But I was too nervous to really care. I ended up catching the kid with a head and arm that came from Judo and winning that match. Then everyone was laughing at him. I remember it not being fun at all because of everyone else’s reactions.”
Kreibel didn’t like that people made fun of her, but she also couldn’t stand the fact that the person she was wrestling would get ridiculed too.
“I came from a time when you had to pick your battles,” Kriebel said. “I definitely had every sort of response you could imagine. Some moms and dads were concerned for my safety. Some were concerned because they didn’t teach their boys to hurt girls. They were worried about touching and that sort of thing, too. But most of those issues really got resolved on their own once they started seeing me as a wrestler.”
Kreibel said that by her senior year, some of her biggest critics had become her biggest fans.
“I never intended to be a pioneer,” Kriebel said. “I didn’t have a mission for equality or rights or girl power or anything like that. I just loved wrestling. Even if it was my mission – I figured out that actions speak a lot louder than words. I could talk about why I deserved to wrestle, or I could just go out and double leg a kid and show them.”
Kriebel finished with a .500 record in high school. She made varsity as a senior and placed third in sectional in a time when only the top two went on to regional.
“Katie just had this toughness about her,” coach Cloud said. “At first I was concerned about her safety, but she quickly dispelled that. She was really, really tough. She got smashed a few times, but she always got back up.”
In fact, Kriebel was so tough she didn’t care who she wrestled or how good they were. She would face anyone.
“Katie had grit and determination,” Cloud said. “We had a wrestler win state, Donny Sands, and when we had challenges she challenged him. Nobody else dared challenge Donny. But she had a lot of courage and heart. He beat her, but she didn’t back down.”
Kriebel’s senior year was the first year girls had a National tournament – and she won it.
She went on to qualify for the junior world team her freshman year of college and placed second. That was the first year the US took a full women’s team with a coach and paid for everything. Kriebel later won the first Women’s World Cup.
She took bronze in 2005 and 2007 at the World Championships and was eventually an alternate for the 2008 Olympics.
“Wrestling gave me the opportunity to see 22 different countries,” Kriebel said. “It was pretty great to see how big the world actually is, but some things in the wrestling room is the same no matter where you’re at.”
Kriebel never dreamed she would return to her roots in Pendleton. She coached a year at Oklahoma City University and then moved to California without any plans to return to this side of the Mississippi river. Then, Eric Kriebel, a longtime assistant coach at Pendleton passed away unexpectedly. She returned home and ended up starting a summer wrestling club in Pendleton in his name. She wanted to keep his legacy alive.
She married Jay Kriebel, Eric’s nephew and the two have two girls, Camryn, 3 and Clara, eight months old.
Kriebel is the varsity assistant coach at Pendleton now. She sits beside the very coach who doubted whether she could make it as a wrestler back in 1994 when Katie and her dad approached him.
“Katie has had a lot of firsts for me,” Cloud said. “She was my first assistant coach to start dating another coach. She was my first assistant coach to marry another coach. She was my first coach to go into labor during a match.”
Cloud said that Kreibel was coaching a match three years ago when she started having back spasms. That night he got a text that just said “I’m going to have a baby now.”
Kriebel has juggled the life of a coach and a parent for three years now. She demonstrated moves to the team while she was pregnant, and even carried Camryn in a baby sling while coaching at the New Castle semistate.
“Wrestling is all Camyrn has known,” Kriebel said. “I coached while I was pregnant with her. I showed front headlocks when she was in my belly, and she was literally on top of kids’ heads. She has never not known wrestling. She even calls the guys on the team ‘her guys’. “
Kriebel is going to let her kids decide for themselves if they want to wrestle or not. She loves the sport, but she also wants what’s best for them.
“I could really talk about wrestling for hours,” Kriebel said. “It’s honest. It’s very honest. You can’t b.s. very much in wrestling. If you have grit and perseverance, integrity and pride and you are willing to put a lot of work in without getting a lot back, then eventually you will be rewarded. It takes so much. You earn your spot. You earn everything.”
Her passion for the sport is infectious. Pendleton now has nine girls on the team and is hoping to have 15 next season.
“That’s sure a big change from where I started,” Cloud said. “But that’s great. I believe wrestling is the greatest sport in the world, so why wouldn’t you want girls doing it too?”