McMahon’s Calli Gilchrist is the first female wrestler to medal in the Class LL tournament

Cousins Calli, left, and Maren Gilchrist of the Brien McMahon wrestling team will compete in the CIAC Girls State Tournament in New Haven on this weekend.

Cousins Calli, left, and Maren Gilchrist of the Brien McMahon wrestling team will compete in the CIAC Girls State Tournament in New Haven on this weekend.

Dave Stewart / Hearst Connecticut Media

Brien McMahon wrestler Calli Gilchrist is tough.

And, as her coach and uncle Joe SantaLucia pointed out, there are no qualification needed with that statement.

“I don’t need to say ‘tough for a girl’ because she’s just tough,” SantaLucia said. “She has this great mental attitude going into a match. She’s always thinking she can score or win the match regardless of the situation.

“Seeing that in a wrestler in general is nice, because not everyone has that. She just goes after people.”

Positive results have followed.

A freshman wrestling at 113 pounds, Gilchrist is 14-7 this season according to the CIAC’s State Open seedings.

Last weekend, Gilchrist, who is No. 23 in her weight class in the National Girls High School Rankings, became the first female wrestler to win a medal in the Class LL tournament when she finished sixth overall.

“I grew up wrestling boys, I’ve only really wrestled girls for the past couple of years, so in a way, it kind of felt normal being there,” Calli said. “But it’s a lot harder, so it really felt good to place and once I found out that I was the first girl, it was really cool. I didn’t even know until after I did it, so it was incredible.”

By reaching the podium in Class LL, Gilchrist qualified for the State Open, but will instead wrestle in this weekend’s CIAC Girls State Championship at the Floyd Little Athletic Center in New Haven.

Calli is the No. 3 seed at 113 pounds, and she’ll be joined in the tournament by her cousin, McMahon sophomore Maren Gilchrist, who will compete at 120.

“I’m just so thankful for the opportunity to wrestle other girls in our state,” Calli said. “We’ve had to search for opportunities and make our own opportunities, so to have this tournament and how it’s building and growing is really incredible.”

The Gilchrist family has deep ties with wrestling. Chrissy SantaLucia, Calli’s mom and Maren’s aunt, is Joe’s sister and a former McMahon wrestler. She coaches the Connecticut Marvels, a girls wrestling team based in Norwalk.

“My sister has been instrumental in bringing the girls together and helping the sport of girls wrestling grow,” Joe SantaLucia said, adding that the wrestlers often went out of state to compete at high levels. “It’s been really cool to see her taking on that role.”

For a freshman wrestler, Calli has a great deal of experience. She started wrestling nine years ago and has navigated several different coaching styles which has allowed her to develop both her knowledge of the sport and skill level.

“I’ve just kind of always done it,” she said of wrestling. “I really enjoy it, it’s part of who I am now and I can’t really imagine not wrestling. I grew up with my mom coaching me, she was always there since I was 7, and coming here, it’s a different coaching style, but I really like it. Every coach is different, and I feel like I’ve learned a lot from every one.”

Maren joined Calli on the mats in the eighth grade as part of the Mad Bulls youth program in Norwalk. While she doesn’t have Calli’s experience, Maren has developed the same type of love for wrestling.

“I’m still fairly new to it because last year we didn’t have a season (due to COVID), but even in just my first year, it was incredible. It was such a family,” Maren said.

Maren missed a large portion of this season, but wrestled a few junior varsity matches and said she’s happy to have the chance to wrestle in the CIAC tournament.

“This is my first opportunity to really wrestle a lot of people, and the fact that it’s other girls is really great,” Maren said. “When we wrestled for girls states in eighth grade (in 2020), there were only four people in our bracket, so now it’s great to have the opportunity to wrestle a lot of girls and get a different experience.”

Both the cousins said their McMahon teammates were welcoming and supportive.

“Our team was so accepting, and a lot of teams don’t do that,” Calli said. “There’s always going to be struggles being the only girls in the room — we always have to wrestle each other, but everyone is accepting and they’re willing to wrestle us.

“They see us as a part of the team and I’m grateful for that.”

“When her mom wrestled, she told us stories of how the guys would push back against her and didn’t want her to wrestle,” Maren said. “Now, it’s grown to the point where we feel comfortable being here and everyone wishes the best for us and helps us succeed.”

Having an inclusive environment for all wrestlers — boys and girls, young and old, veterans and newcomers — is important to Joe SantaLucia.

“We’re all the same and we all work the same,” he said. “It’s a tough sport. You’re supposed to be out here working hard and enjoying that aspect of it. In that respect, the fact that they’re girls doesn’t matter. Integrity and character are very important to me, so I typically end up having a really good group of kids because that’s my expectation of them. That happens with everyone on the team.”

At this weekend’s girls tournament, the competition will be plentiful. The 113-pound bracket features 13 wrestlers and the 120 bracket has 12.

“This whole season, I had to think of it as this is a boys season, it’s OK to not win every match,” Calli said. “At this point, going into the girls states, I’m excited to have the opportunity to wrestle other girls. My mindset is different and still in a positive place. I’m excited to see how it goes.”

“With the boys it’s like ‘It’s OK, they’re boys, they’re stronger, they’re supposed to win,’ Maren said. “With these girls, the competition is really there and it means a lot.”

From the corner of the mat, Joe SantaLucia will be watching as an uncle, but the coach will be in charge.

“Obviously, I can feel happy when my niece is doing well,” he said. “But as a coach, I’m going to keep coaching and treat them just like any other of my wrestlers. It’s definitely emotional. I feel it.

“When we go home, we can talk about what happened, but out here I’m the coach and that needs to come first.”

david.stewart@hearstmediact.com; @dstewartsports