Inside Alli Ragan’s rise in the Hawkeye Wrestling Club to a two-time world silver medalist
This is the fifth of a five-part series profiling the Hawkeye Wrestling Club’s women’s freestyle wrestlers. Today’s story is on Alli Ragan, a two-time world silver medalist and six-time Senior World Team member.
IOWA CITY, Ia. — It’s about a six-hour drive from Carver-Hawkeye Arena to Carbondale, Illinois, Alli Ragan’s hometown. When drivers hit the city limits, they sometimes notice a green sign with small lettering on the side of the state highway.
“Alli Ragan,” it reads, “Women’s Wrestling, 2 Time World Silver Medalist.”
Ragan has never seen the sign, at least not in person. Pictures have circulated social media, accompanied by words of praise and encouragement. She thinks the whole thing is a little strange.
“My parents saw it on Facebook,” Ragan saids, “so they asked me if I saw it, and I was like, ‘What the heck? That’s weird.’”
The comment reveals Ragan’s drive. She has never chased recognition, but she understands her achievements will help inspire the next generation of women’s wrestlers. Only eight women from the United States have won world wrestling titles, and just one, Helen Maroulis, has won Olympic gold.
Ragan would like to add her name to both lists.
“If it can say, ‘World Champ,’ that’d be better,” she continued. “Or, ‘Olympian,’ or ‘Olympic Gold Medalist.’ It would just look better if it was better accomplishments.”
Ragan is one of five women’s freestyle wrestlers who train with the Hawkeye Wrestling Club, but she is undoubtedly the most accomplished. At 26 years old, she is one of the best pound-for-pound wrestlers in the U.S. She is a six-time Senior World Team member and a two-time world silver medalist.
Her run to make her seventh senior team begins Thursday at the U.S. Open in Las Vegas. Ragan is the heavy favorite to win her third U.S. Open title, and her first since going back-to-back in 2013-14. She is slated to compete at 59 kilograms (130 pounds).
“Alli has been a consummate professional from the beginning,” says Terry Steiner, the U.S. women’s freestyle national team coach and a former Iowa wrestler. “She’s a self-starter. She has tremendous discipline and takes things into her own hands.
“She puts herself in the situations that she needs to be in. For us, we feel like we really have a team right now that can compete to win, and Alli is a big part of that.”
Joining the Hawkeye Wrestling Club
Ragan was also the mastermind behind adding more women’s wrestlers to the Hawkeye Wrestling Club. After Lauren Louive joined in August 2015, Ragan made the move two years later, but she traveled back and forth from Iowa City to the Olympic Training Center .
One trip, she talked with Forrest Molinari, a past teammate at King University in Tennessee. That led to a conversation with Kayla Miracle, who was the 2017 U-23 World Team with Molinari. Soon, Michaela Beck joined in, and their additions were officially announced last August.
“They’re the same high-level competitors,” Iowa coach Tom Brands says. “Alli is a high-level thinker. She’s on par with the best minds in that room, or better. When we talk examples in the room, we talk about (2017 world silver medalist Thomas Gilman) and Alli Ragan.”
“The first time I was really introduced to her was when she didn’t make the Olympic team in 2016. I read an article about how how hard it was for her, and it sounded like some of the most devastating losses that I’ve been associated with as a coach and competitor.”
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'How can you wrestle well and lose?'
Ragan has long admired Iowa wrestling. She grew up a Brent Metcalf fan, mesmerized by his intense mannerisms and the way he dominated his opponents. But she never imagined that she’d be training in the same room that helped him become a two-time NCAA champion.
She started wrestling at age 7. Her father, Dennis, is a hall-of-fame coach who mentored her her Carbondale High School. Ragan always came to practices when her older brother, Jared, first started. One day, she asked if she could wrestle, too. Dennis beamed with excitement.
Ragan idolized Patricia Miranda, a 2004 Olympic bronze medalist, and Clarissa Chun, a 2008 world champion. Dennis first saw her competitive drive as a fifth-grader. She lost in the finals of a local tournament to a tough wrestler. Dennis thought she wrestled well.
“How can you wrestle well and lose?” Ragan asked.
“She was spitting fire,” Dennis recalls. “Wrestling helped me learn a lot about her.”
She set the Illinois record books ablaze, becoming the second girl to qualify for the state wrestling tournament in 2007 — her bracket featured Tony Ramos, a 2014 NCAA champion at Iowa, and Ellis Coleman, a 2012 Olympian — and the first to win 100 career matches. She ended with 124, including wins over Lavion Mayes, a 2017 NCAA finalist, and Tommy Gantt, a 2016 All-American.
“Her senior year, we were wrestling a team, and you could tell the other wrestler was trying to stall so he didn’t give up any bonus points in the dual,” Dennis recalls. “That’s kind of when it dawned on us how far she’d come.
“It didn’t click at the time, because I didn’t view her as a girl wrestler that needed any special treatment. I just viewed her as another wrestler in the program.”
Challenges persisted. Each year, Dennis took his team to the University of Missouri for a team camp, and hardly anybody wanted to drill with his daughter, usually the only girl in the room.
“It’s like, ‘Who wants to be my partner?’” Ragan recalls. “Nobody really wanted to be my partner. I was like, ‘I promise I’ll work hard and keep up the drilling pace.’
“Once they realized, ‘Oh, she’s not terrible,’ then they drilled with me more.”
► WOMEN'S WRESTLING COVERAGE FROM THE DES MOINES REGISTER
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'The goal is to be a world champ'
Wrestling piqued Ragan’s interest in ways other sports did not. She loved that continual improvement was necessary for bigger accomplishments. She sought a perfect match each time she stepped on the mat, knowing full well that was virtually impossible. She turned down a volleyball scholarship to SIUE to wrestle at King University.
Ragan became a two-time Women’s Collegiate Wrestling Association national champion. Along the way, she twice won bronze at the Junior World Championships. She made her first Senior World Team following her junior season at King and has been a staple ever since.
Her ascent has coincided with the rise of girls’ wrestling around the country. In 2009-10, her senior year of high school, only 6,134 girls wrestled nationwide, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. In 2017-18, that number grew to 16,562. What's more, Illinois declared girls’ wrestling an emerging sport earlier this year.
“It’s awesome,” Ragan says. “Nowadays, girls have so many wrestlers to look up to. The better we do for USA Wrestling, the more it’ll help the younger generation. I just have to do my job and wrestle.”
A serious neck injury kept Ragan from competing for a third straight world medal last year. She returned for an exhibition dual against India in Los Angeles last month. She tossed her opponent to her back and won 9-1, then immediately shifted her focus to the U.S. Open.
Ragan’s remarkable consistency since her junior year at King has helped build a résumé on par with some of the country’s best women’s wrestlers. She could firmly insert herself into that conversation with a world title and Olympic gold over the next two years.
“The goal is to be a world champ,” Ragan says. “This week is just the first step in being a world champ and Olympic champ.”
Those two accomplishments would look great on a street sign.
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.
OTHER HAWKEYE WRESTLING CLUB WOMEN'S WRESTLERS STORIES
Alli Ragan Résumé
- Senior World Team member, 2013-2018
- 2017 Senior World silver medalist
- 2017 Pan-American gold medalist
- 2016 Senior World silver medalist
- 2014 U.S. Open champion
- 2014 WCWA national champion
- 2013 U.S. Open champion
- 2013 WCWA national champion
- 2012 Junior world bronze medalist
- 2012 WCWA national runner-up
- 2011 Junior world bronze medalist
- 2011 WCWA national runner-up