Sunkist Kids women creating a bright future

Updated: June 9, 2023

Photo: Kennedy Blades (top), a Junior World champ, earned a spot in June’s Final X event in Newark after scoring a 12-2 technical fall against six-time Senior World champ Adeline Gray at the U.S. Open. They will meet again at Final X. (Sam Janicki photo)

By Mike Finn

The Sunkist Kids Wrestling Club has been around and very successful since Art Martori started the organization, based in Phoenix, Ariz., in 1976. And for those 47 years, the club has produced plenty of Olympians (67), Olympic medalists (29, including 12 gold), World Team members (277) and World medalists (97, 31 gold).

And that includes women’s freestyle, where Sunkist Kids was among the first clubs to offer financial backing for females. And while Afsoon Johnston became the first American women to place in 1989 and Tricia Saunders became the first American women to win a World title in 1992, while representing Sunkist Kids, the club has exploded with success with women’s freestyle in recent years. 

That included the 2022 World Championships where Dominique Parrish won gold at 53 kilos, Kayla Miracle earned a second straight silver medal at 62 kilos, and Helen Maroulis also added a silver medal (57k) to go along with her 2016 Olympic gold medal (53k) and 2020 Olympic bronze medal (57k). (She also won her third World championship in 2021.)

This story appeared in the late May issue of WIN Magazine. Click on the cover or call 888-305-0606 to subscribe.

Last fall’s Worlds success in Belgrade, Serbia, is also the reason that all three women earned a spot in USA Wrestling’s Final X event, June 10 in Newark, N.J., where the 2023 World Team will be finalized. In fact, at this point, the Sunkist Kids Wrestling Club will be represented by half of the 20 women competing in the Prudential Center. That includes Forrest Molinari, the 2021 World bronze medalist, who was among five Sunkist Kids women freestylers to win a 2023 U.S. Open championship last month in Las Vegas to earn a spot in Final X.

Sunkist Kids Wrestling Club athletes have not always trained in Arizona, including in women’s freestyle. But that has changed in recent years where Maroulis, Miracle and Molinaro all made the move to Phoenix in recent years to train. Maroulis, in her recent documentary, “Helen/Believe”, the 31-year-old wrestling legend credited the sisterhood of the Sunkist Kids women and the coaching of Mark Perry for much of her success after dealing with health issues that nearly ended her career.

And perhaps the most encouraging part of the Sunkist Kids women’s freestyle program has been the emergence of several younger women especially at the U.S. Open, where seven Sunkist Kids-sponsored wrestlers won titles in Vegas. That includes 20-year-old Kennedy Blades, who upset six-time World champion Adeline Gray for a Final X spot at 76 kilos, while high school wrestlers Audrey Jimenez (Sunnyside High in Tucson) and Katie Gomez (a 2022 graduate from Birmingham Charter High in Los Angeles) won Open titles at 50k and 53k. 

“I’ve been fortunate to have been around a lot of the best young and older talented wrestlers in the United States,” said Perry, the former NCAA champion from Iowa who took over the Sunkist Kids RTC in 2020 and believes Sunkist Kids’ success among the women’s ranks have more to do with the wrestlers than himself.

“Athletes go through different phases in their career,” Perry said. “Sometimes they lose focus at what they are really good at and what made the good in the first place. I like to guide them back in that direction, put that killer instinct in them that they all have had. A lot of the women that we are attracting out here had success coming in.”

Perry also said that women’s wrestling has become even more competitive, including within the Sunkist Kids, with the emergence of the younger wrestlers.

“It’s similar to what you see in other great programs around the country like the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club, which has young and older generations training together,” said Perry.

Sunkist Kids head coach Mark Perry works with both young and older female wrestlers, including Forrest Molinari, a 2021 World bronze medalist and 2023 U.S. Open champ. (Sam Janicki photo)

Blades, a native of Illinois, who also attended Wyoming Seminary in Pennsylvania before winning a Junior World title in 2021, was highly recruited among the top wrestling clubs before she and her sister Korina (a 2021 Junior World bronze medalist) announced they were heading to Arizona to train, while attending Arizona State University.

“Kennedy came in with expectations from herself and her family,” Perry said. “They want to be the best in the world at a young age. That’s a pretty big hill to climb, especially at the heaviest weight class in women’s wrestling.”

(In addition to Blades and Gray, who will take on Blades in Final X after winning the World Team Trials in May, the 76-kilogram weight class includes the likes of Junior World champs Kylie Welker and Yelena Makoyed. The weight also includes 2022 World Team member Dymond Guilford as well as Senior World champ Amit Elor, who is expected to move up from the non-Olympic weight of 72 kilos for the 2024 Olympic Trials.)

“Kennedy is actually undersized,” Perry said. “We kind of put a plan together and the thing is that she does everything right, as far as lifestyle goes, including her academics. She’s like any kid. She wants to do a lot of things that others do but doesn’t. She’s focused on this goal. She’s going for gold. She’s committed her whole life to it. 

“Every aspect that we are doing out here with nutrition and strength training will help her grow into her frame. It’s as good as it gets for a young girl to feel that kind of pressure and intensity in long grueling practices. It’s good for her mental development and she’s taking everything head on and I’m excited for her and her future.”

Speaking of the future with the Sunkist Kids women, many wonder if Arizona State might become the next Power-5 athletic program — joining Iowa — to start a women’s college program. The NCAA announced a year ago that women’s wrestling earned “emerging-sports” status and could earn varsity status over the next couple years.

“(The school) is working towards it. That’s the plan,” said Perry. “I think after COVID the school had to take care of other matters. We are doing all the procedures for the long term to make that happen. I definitely could see that happening.”

But for now, Perry would like to create a good team attitude that can be compared to any great college or international program.

“There’s not really that much team competition in college because they don’t have the numbers yet,” said Perry, who would rather these women focus on beating the likes of the powerful Japanese Senior-level team. “They are a group that has high aspirations and they are having fun with it. Even if they fall short (in 2024), they are going to be in very good positions for the next (Olympic) quad.”