Takes junior and cadet divisions at Marine Corps Championships
By Jason Maholy
If Mia Palumbo doesn't slow down, she might in the not-too-distant future be the greatest female wrestler ever to come out of Illinois.
And while the Richards sophomore certainly appreciates the attention that has gone along with her excelling in a sport dominated by boys, she would be just fine being recognized as a great wrestler.
During Palumbo's freshman year for the Bulldogs in 2017-18, the Oak Lawn resident cemented her status as the most successful high school girl grappler in state history when she became the first female to ever win a match at the IHSA state wrestling tournament. Palumbo would win a second match before bowing out of the tourney with a 2-2 record, her two losses coming to the eventual third- and fifth-place medalists.
But the impressive and unprecedented showing was just the beginning of her rise to the elite of the wrestling world. Keep in mind those were boys she was competing against during a season in which she went 37-7 and won regional and sectional crowns.
So she decided to one-up – or is it two-up – her accomplishments by winning not one but two national championships. Earlier this month, Palumbo stood atop the podium in Fargo, N.D., after taking the 106-pound freestyle titles in the women's junior and cadet divisions at the U.S. Marine Corps National Championships.
For her success on the mat at the state and national levels, Mia Palumbo is The Regional-Reporter's 2018 Girls High School Athlete of the Year.
The two national titles are the pinnacle of a wrestling career that is still at the fledgling stage, and there are almost certainly greater things to come from an athlete who has seen the fruits of dedicating herself to the sport she has competed in since she was 4 years old. Palumbo believed she had what it took to be a national champion, but the fact she actually did it took a while to settle in.
“I didn't really have any emotion at first because it didn't sink in that I won,” she said. “Once I went up to the (medals) stand with my family and friends, it felt real.”
Palumbo entered this offseason determined to compete against and train with the top female prep wrestlers in the country. In addition to her trek to North Dakota, she has been to camps and tournaments in Iowa, Michigan and West Virginia, and has wrestled in more than 50 matches. That's essentially another season-plus of experience, against top competition, that she will take with her into what could be a sophomore campaign for the ages.
While the training and experiences have helped Palumbo improve an already formidable skill set, her success has instilled into her the confidence that she can attain all of her goals.
“I've learned I can push myself really far, and to just keep going no matter who steps in front of me,” she said. “I want to win national titles, I want to make the world team, I want to keep doing what I'm doing and win a state title.”
She also has aspirations to make the U.S. Olympic team, for which she would be eligible In 2024.
“I've trained with the top wrestlers in the country, tried to get the best matches I can,” she added. “Wrestling older people and wrestling guys, I'm going to get that spot. If I get there one day that would be amazing.”
Palumbo's progression from a talented athlete with the potential to be great to legitimate state medal contender and girls national champion goes beyond her physical abilities and technique on the mat. Over the past year she has also emphasized eating right and going to bed on time. That and training hard every day – her parents help keep her from slacking off, she said – have paid dividends. That, in turn, has further fed her focus and determination.
“My attention to detail has really improved, I've been cracking down this year knowing I could possibly win a national title,” she said. “I've been doing this my whole life, and once I started getting my weight under control, eating right, training hard, I knew that if I can just keep doing this I can definitely be at the top.”
Competing against boys for the past 10 years has helped establish her work ethic.
“I knew I had to work harder than everybody else, especially because I'm a girl,” she said. “If I want to beat the best I've got to work 10 times harder than everybody else.”
The most significant difference between boys and girls on the mat is that boys are simply a lot stronger, Palumbo said. She has to rely more on speed and technique, working to find favorable angles, to counter the superior physicality of males. Against girls, she is able to combine her own physicality with her technical skills to dominate opponents. In Fargo, she won each of her four Cadet division matches by technical fall, by the combined score of 47-4, and defeated the 2017 third-place finisher 12-1 in the title match.
Colleges have taken notice of Palumbo, but she's focused on the steps she needs to take to be a high school state champ.
“I'll handle college when the time comes,” she said. “This has definitely been my peak. Everything I've done has been paying off.”