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Julia Salata: Breaking Down Barriers with Princeton Wrestling

Princeton Director of Operations Julia Salata (photo courtesy of Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)

Growing up, Julia Salata was always surrounded by boys. Being an only child, she was at the mercy of the children in her neighborhood - which happened to be very male-dominant. Because of this, she gravitated towards the things boys like so she would fit in - from tackle football, street hockey, and whatever else young boys used to do before today's technology-driven activities. She remembers watching WWE SummerSlam on VHS and loving every second of it. She grew to love pro wrestling while other girls her age were watching Disney movies and playing dress-up. Simpler times.

Her personal wrestling debut came in eighth grade when her middle school was starting up a wrestling program for the first time ever. Already playing sports like hockey, softball, volleyball, track and field (just to name a few), she begged her mom to let her sign up. After a warning from her mother saying, "this is not like what you watch on TV," Julia continued to convince her mom that this is what she wanted to do. Once she won districts, the rest is history. What's even more impressive, is that she had to compete against all boys. Some of the boys she beat were club guys who were expected to make some noise at the high school level. She saw success immediately. Her future high school coach saw her performance and just had to have her on the team. This would be the first female he's ever coached on his high school team. Little did she know, her life was going to change.

Quick sidebar to set the stage and remind people of the days before women were given the equal opportunity they have now in terms of scholastic wrestling. If women wanted to wrestle for their school, they were wrestling boys. Up until college, most women had to find success while battling it out with boys their age and size (unless competing at Fargo or similar national tournaments). Once it was time for college, the number of options for women wrestlers was very slim. We have come a long way since then, but it is always nice to remember how things used to be. To put it into perspective, Julia said "I was maybe 1 of 20 girls wrestling in the state of Michigan at the time." Because of this, Julia is still fully engaged in her role at Wrestle Like a Girl. Her position as Sr. Manager of Women's Collegiate Advancement is playing a vital part in helping the NCAA establish, facilitate, and legitimize the growing need and demand for women's wrestling. More on that later.

Back to Julia's inspiration to continue to pursue wrestling. She was JV her first season, ending the season with a .500 record. She participated in Fargo that year as well. Although she was disappointed that she didn't place, she witnessed one of her friends, CC Weber, claim a Women's Fargo National Title. This was the motivation she needed. Well, that plus one other thing… Julia's father and her made a deal. If Julia won Fargo the following year, she would be allowed to get a tattoo. After witnessing her first season with an average-at-best record, her father agreed, really liking his odds. Guess who ended up getting a tattoo the following year. A year and a half into the sport, she was already a National Champion!

Julia Salata at the 2017 World Team Trials (photo courtesy of Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)

If you follow wrestling enough, you most likely heard her name in discussions, or seen her on Twitter. To summarize her results as a competitor, you'd need one of those long scrolls the jester used in the medieval days. She was a multiple-time All-American in college and twice an undefeated champion. She immediately became an assistant coach at King University in Tennessee, right after she was done competing there collegiately. King University was, and still is, a perennial women's wrestling powerhouse. While coaching, she also made multiple national teams and amassed a very respectable career as a competitor. I can go on and on about her contributions to the sport. Now that we have some background, let's explore her new role at Princeton as Director of Operations.

In the past, we've seen this position utilized in a few ways. One way I've seen it implemented in a creative way, was to bring on a young, recently graduated wrestler who was looking to get into coaching. The Director of Operations can be used as an extra coaching position to improve workout partners in the room. Typically, this person is the one who makes things happen behind the scenes, maybe booking hotels, running errands, administrative, work, etc. This was just one of the many ways to implement this role. Princeton, being unique in its approach, had other things in mind.
Due to Julia's role at Wrestle Like a Girl (WLAG), she became very familiar with Princeton Head Coach, Chris Ayres, and maybe moreso his wife, Lori. As some of you may know, Lori Ayres is heavily involved with women's wrestling and helping advance the sport in the state of New Jersey, and around the country. "The idea of bringing Julia in to fill this position was largely due to Lori," Coach Chris Ayres stated. "There was no hesitation once we knew the position would be opening. I never really had any second thoughts" (It makes you wonder who the real brains behind the Princeton program has been all these years…)

"The obvious end-goal is to have a women's varsity team at Princeton. The first step to that is getting an established club team and having a women's wrestling presence on campus" Salata mentioned. She recently retired from competing at the end of 2021, so the timing could not have been more perfect. She went on a visit in April to make sure this is what she really wanted. "That trip really solidified it for me." Between the beautiful Ivy League campus, and the atmosphere surrounding the program, it was a no-brainer for her. "I've lived in Tennessee for 11 years. I wouldn't just uproot my life and move for anybody." Julia was more than thrilled to take the job. She knew it would be a huge change in her life. Just like any decision we need to make in life, there is always that negative thought that lingers in the back of your mind…

"Imposter Syndrome" was a word that Julia mentioned in our brief discussion. That's exactly the phrase I was looking for, as I was trying to formulate some type of question asking how she felt making the jump from coaching women's wrestling to NCAA Division 1. She felt she had a little bit of this "imposter syndrome" coming from a women's wrestling background. Once she came to fruition that "the fact that I have the support of the coaching staff is so huge. And it's a testament to the culture they have there… Believing that women have a role in these kinds of roles." As mentioned, Princeton did reach out to her. This helps alleviate any doubt.

On the contrary, Julia mentioned she still needed to earn the respect of the guys, explaining "I'm kind of coming into their men's division 1 space - I get that. But it has been fantastic so far, everyone has been super welcoming." A perfect example is when Julia told me the story of her first time in the room, sitting down along the wall before practice starts. She walked into the room and was immediately greeted by a Princeton wrestler. She didn't have her glasses on, so she has terrible vision and can only see a blurry figure. "Hi Julia, I'm Patrick. Nice to meet you." Julia, with a smile on her face, then proceeds to say "Holy crap! It's Pat Glory." She was so impressed that he could have easily ignored her and had that chip on his shoulder being a returning NCAA runner-up. But, he was the first to greet her. This has since been a common theme. "All of the guys are so welcoming. That's just how the culture is there. I truly believe they buy into the progress of women's wrestling and excited to have me on board." It's safe to say, she is excited for this opportunity - as is the entire program.
Excited, anxious, and maybe a little nervous best describe her recent life change. "I've been on national teams. I've coached high-level athletes at RTC camps. This is still that, but different." Julia explained how she always had loved the idea of coaching at this level… "But 7-8 years ago, this was not an option to even wrestle at this level. Now, to be on staff at one of the best (and quickly improving) teams in the nation, is just so cool." Not just a great wrestling program, but a program that is so "forward-thinking" as Julia perfectly put it. Forward-thinking in all aspects of life. They know life is greater than this sport alone.

The tee shirts the squad wore at NCAAs in Detroit were just an appetizer of figurative statements they are making when it comes to the equality in wrestling. Plain black shirts with "Grow Women's Wrestling" on the front. "Bridge the D1vide" written in white text, minus the 'D1' portion of the word, which was in blue. It goes without saying, the coaching staff looked very fashionable in them. I'll let them argue over who looked best amongst themselves. Anyway, the shirts make the statement that they are here to help support the sport. This hire exclaims, "we are part of the solution." This hire is a historical one, but not the least bit surprising from Princeton, which has been at the forefront of equality in the sport of wrestling over the last decade or so. Many schools have talked the talk. They are one of the first teams to really walk the walk.

What is there to not like about the Princeton wrestling program? Two returning NCAA runner-ups (Patrick Glory - 125lbs and Quincy Monday - 157lbs), last year's 3rd place team finish at the EIWA Championships, and a full returning line-up plus a talented recruiting class. Off the mat, they are one of the top programs in the country when it comes to marketability. Ivy League - check. Incredible networking opportunities - check. Social media presence - check. The energy and excitement of the program is unmatched.

Julia Salata (right) coaching at Fargo (photo courtesy of Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)

When I asked Coach Ayres why Julia was the top candidate, "Well, one, why not a female? Secondly, she's a great wrestler. She is a great wrestling mind and is doing big things. It just made sense. It was an easy decision to have her come to Princeton." It's a unique situation because she is part-time with her role at Princeton. She can do her remote work for WLAG as needed, but is currently working from the coaches' office at the school. He bragged for Julia, "she is young, but she's in a very powerful leadership position. She has big tasks in front of her, and to see her handle those things and watch her operate the way she does…" he started to laugh "she gets a little bit out of this deal, we get A LOT out of it."

As mentioned, she will be heavily involved with the women's side of the RTC. I would imagine it's very comforting and reassuring as a young female wrestler seeing a women coach. "…when you go to tournaments like the women's nationals at Fargo, there's just not enough women coaches. There are way more men coaching women than women coaching" Ayres stated. He continued, "We need more women in leadership positions." He continued more about the lack of women in leadership roles. "It's no wonder wrestling is where we are… We are light-years behind other sports in terms of women representation."

This entire movement is not just for competitive opportunities. It also supports expanding employment opportunities for women within the sport of wrestling. Many of us, myself included, forget about the latter. Princeton has been at the forefront for numerous things outside of wrestling, which in turn, help sustain a healthy culture and atmosphere inside the program. One final talking point from Coach encapsulates his vision for Julia: "When those young RTC athletes, boys and girls, walk into practice and see Julia as a leader, she is a great example of a mentor. Those kids will quickly realize that. That's what I'm most excited about."

Until the season starts, Julia is settling into her new home in Princeton, NJ. She is ecstatic about the lifestyle change. She is a self-proclaimed "foodie" so she could not be in a better location for her passion. Being roughly halfway between Philadelphia and New York City, she has endless options of great pizza, deli subs, bagels, and much more. But, as things change, some remain the same. One of her first realizations was the passion behind the food, including the infamous 'Taylor Ham vs pork roll' debate. With an almost terrified look on her face, she exclaimed "I've been here for like 18 hours, and already getting dragged into this debate!" Her stance of now - "It's a good breakfast sandwich, whatever you want to call it is up to you." I'm not from New Jersey but being non-committed to this issue seems to be a serious offense. To make matters worse, she said Detroit-style pizza is her favorite. Thankfully, Princeton does not discriminate against lesser styles of pizza, and still allows Julia to be employed at the university. Coach Ayres and staff are excited to have her as part of the team, and slowly indoctrinate her taste buds with real pizza.

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