On March 1 at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, Jess Johnson walked to the wrestling mat and looked up at the crowd. She saw around 10,000 people standing, cheering and taking iPhone pictures.
She gulped and a chill went down her spine. The Manalapan High School sophomore was nervous. Most New Jersey wrestlers are before their first state tournament match at Boardwalk Hall.
“It’s hard to look up at all those people and not get nervous,” said Manalapan coach Scott Pressman.
Johnson came out tentative in her first match. But she earned a 2-0 decision and advanced. As she walked off the mat, Pressman addressed the issue head on.
“You nervous?” the coach asked.
“Yeah,” Johnson said.
The coach and girls’ wrestler talked about taking deep breaths, settling down and “dominating,” Pressman said.
Johnson pinned her next two opponents and won the 136-pound state championship on March 2 at Boardwalk Hall.
“She became relaxed,” Pressman said.
“I was so excited after I won,” Johnson said. “I knew this day would finally come.”
Like many female wrestlers in the Garden State, Johnson has been playing the sport for years. But the NJSIAA, the governing body for high school sports in New Jersey, did not sanction girls’ wrestling until this winter.
The decision by the NJSIAA paved the way for Johnson to become one of the first female state champions in the state’s history.
Ten weight class championships were contested in the first state tournament for girl wrestlers. The boys’ state tournament crowned champions in 14 weight classes on March 2 at Boardwalk Hall.
The Manalapan sophomore discovered contact sports when she was seven years old. Her father, Bobby Johnson, was a jiu jitsu trainer at the Ricardo Almeida Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Academy in Robbinsville.
Jess Johnson would often accompany her father to work and “grapple” with male and female students. By the winter of seventh grade at Manalapan-Englishtown Middle School, Johnson had five years of jiu jitsu experience. She was also looking for a winter sport to play between the fall jiu jitsu season and the spring soccer season.
Bobby Johnson suggested wrestling. Jess resisted at first.
“She was like, ‘Na,'” Bobby Johnson said.
But the father persisted.
“I was like, ‘Jiu jitsu will help in wrestling,'” he said.
He was right.
“She tried wrestling and loved it,” Bobby Johnson said. “Some kids are new to it in middle school. She already had five years of grappling. It kicked in.”
In eighth grade, Johnson won the Monmouth County Red Division championship. The Red Division featured male wrestlers from seven Monmouth middle schools.
Johnson wasn’t just adept at wrestling. She was beating the boys.
By ninth grade, she faced a decision. Johnson wanted to focus on one sport in high school. She grew up playing soccer, and she always thought it would be her sport.
But the former jiu jitsu fighter had grown to love wrestling, and there was no way she could give it up. She chose the mat over the pitch.
“It was clear to me,” Johnson said.
“With wrestling I saw myself going to bigger places,” she added. “With soccer I saw myself plateauing.”
Two years and a state championship later, it is clear that Johnson made the right decision. She hopes to eventually earn a collegiate scholarship for her new sport. Pressman thinks Johnson can become a feminist icon in local circles.
“She can be the face of female wrestling for the shore and the state,” he said. “She’s what young girls should strive to become, a wrestler with high level techniques.”