Kaila Del Toro, a 16-year-old sophomore at William Howard Taft High School in Chicago, appears like any 5-foot-1, 124-pound high school student. She's not. Last year she started wrestling -- and became an All-American with a fifth-place finish in the 117-pound weight class at the Fargo Nationals in Fargo, North Dakota.
Kaila Del Toro"She's got heavy hands, which is something you can certainly train, but it sure is nice to just have them," said Mike Powell, executive director of Beat the Streets -- Chicago. "I saw her snap a girl down at the Beat the Streets National Dual's last summer and just about break [the other girl's nose] on the mat."
Del Toro became the first wrestler in the history of Taft and of the wrestling group Beat the Streets-Chicago to become an All-American at the prestigious high school event.
Since 2001, the number of girls in high school wrestling has more than quadrupled from 3,405 to just below 17,000 participants today. Title IX, the introduction of women to Olympic wrestling in 2004 and the rise of Mixed Martial Arts have all contributed to this spike.
Today, 19 states sponsor official or emerging girls state high school championships, while a dozen others are developing their own girls high school championship series. Del Toro, one of those girls who has "fallen in love" with wrestling, didn't follow in the path of a parent, siblings or friends.
"I always liked fighting sports," Del Toro said. "When I was little, I used to watch them and was like, 'Yeah, I want to do that.'"
The sophomore's first foray into a "fighting sports" wasn't wrestling. She did Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai and boxing in middle school. Then in high school, she added wrestling -- and promptly brought home serious hardware in her first year of competition.
At Taft, she won her sectional event at the 2019 Freshman/Sophomore & Girls Tournament, sponsored by the Illinois Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association. To participate, the wrestler must be a freshman or sophomore who did not qualify for the Illinois High School Association State Tournament. After being crowned a Section champion, she finished third overall at the event the following week.
In May, she took home another third-place finish at the Illinois Girls Freestyle State Championships.
Although Del Toro has more experience wrestling folkstyle, she said that she prefers freestyle due to a quicker pace.
"It [has] a faster pace and is more [of a] stand-up [style]," said Del Toro. I really like stand-up. I don't like to be on the ground too much and I really like takedowns."
She has always had a natural wrestling ability. Proper technique was all that was missing.
"She soaks up wrestling like a sponge," said Mike Boyd, her freestyle coach. "Technique was the missing piece, with better technique, she can be an elite freestyle competitor."
"Grit, being relentless, she already had that so it wasn't reinventing the wheel," Boyd said. "She was already a great athlete, super strong, super tough. She just needed some technique and someone to push her in the right direction."
She hopes to finish No. 1 in the state as a sophomore. By her senior campaign, she hopes to rank top-5 in the nation.
"If she continues to do the things she's doing, when Illinois makes girls wrestling an official sport, I would see her as a state qualifier or state placer," said Brad Engel, head coach at Taft. "If she continues on this trajectory, [being a] state champion would be great."
"She's one of those special kids who likes to get after it," Engel Said. "I think there is a huge difference between kids who want to win, and kids who don't want to lose, and she definitely hates to lose,"
Kaila Del Toro wrestling at Preseason Folkstyle NationalsDel Toro has her sights set on a collegiate wrestling career.
"For sure, I want to go into college wrestling, I've already started thinking about it," she said.
Today, the NCAA does not recognize women's wrestling as a varsity sport. But, more than two dozen schools provide club offerings.
Ongoing efforts to get women's wrestling sanctioned by the NCAA as an official varsity sport are underway. The most significant effort to date, the NCAA Committee on Women's Athletics, has recommended women's wrestling for NCAA Emerging Sport Status to division I, II and III in August 2020.
Whether Del Toro can compete in college or not, she plans to advocate for the cause, hoping it will one day be recognized as a full-fledged division I NCAA sport.
Powell praised her work ethic, dedication, toughness and athleticism.
"I'm not saying this lightly," he said. "She's a future girls state champion, [maybe an] Olympic hopeful with the right coaching and the right situation. She's the real deal."
Del Toro received support from Taft, Beat the Streets and her parents from the very beginning -- especially from her mom, Yadira Del Toro, who, when in high school herself, tried out for the football team.
"She can do anything. I don't care what anyone tells you, if you have a dream, do it," said Yadira Del Toro, a guest relations associate at Nile Family Services. "For her it's wrestling. Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do it because you're a girl."
Her advice to her daughter is simple:
"Just do your best and always go for it."
For the skeptics who say girls can't wrestle, who say it is a "male sport," Kaila has one thing to say.
"Wrestle Adeline Grey and see what happens," Del Toro laughed. "If you meet one of those extremely dedicated, women wrestlers, they're phenomenal. You wouldn't be able to tell them no; you can't do this sport because they would kick your ass."