World champion Kylie Welker is first recruit to commit to Iowa women's wrestling program
Clarissa Chun started her work as the head coach of the Iowa women’s wrestling program a month earlier than planned to get a jumpstart on recruiting. The first reward for her hard work came Wednesday, in the form of her first commitment.
And it's a big one.
Kylie Welker, a Wisconsin native and the No. 1 pound-for-pound women's high school wrestler in America, told the Des Moines Register on Thursday that she has committed and officially signed with the Iowa women's wrestling program.
"I went on a visit last weekend, and it felt like home, it felt right," Welker said. "On top of it, I love coach Chun. I've been working with her since I was really little, so I trust her.
"I wanted to be the first to commit. I want to help build the program. This is the first Division I Power 5 program. It's history, and I think that's really cool."
The 18-year-old Welker is a transcendent wrestling talent around whom Chun can begin building her program. She became a star over the last year, making three separate world teams and winning two age-level world medals. She will come to Iowa City as one of the Hawkeyes' most-credentialed wrestling recruits, man or woman.
Consider what she's accomplished over the last 10 months:
- She qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials in late March, then made the best-of-three finals at the Trials a week later — after bumping up a weight, while still a junior in high school. (She lost to Adeline Gray, two matches to none; Gray went on to win Olympic silver in Tokyo.)
- A month after, she made both the Junior and U23 women's freestyle world teams at 76 kilograms (167 pounds), going 10-1 overall across both world team trial events and outscoring her opponents by a combined 89-11.
- In July, she won a Junior women's freestyle national title at 164 pounds, going 5-0 with four technical falls and one pin, outscoring her opponents 51-0 and wrestling for a grand total of 4 minutes, 35 seconds.
- In August, she became a Junior women's freestyle world champ, going 4-0 with three technical falls and one pin, and outscoring her opponents 37-0. She helped lead the United States to its first world team title in Junior women's freestyle.
- In November, she won bronze at the U23 world championships, and helping the U.S. to a third-place team finish. (That's also her third age-level world medal; she won bronze at the 2019 Cadet world championships, too.)
In between all of that, Welker made the Senior world team in September, this time at 72 kilos (158), and competed at the Senior world championships in Norway a month later. She finished 10th, but showed she clearly belonged on wrestling's biggest stage.
"It's been exciting," Welker said in September, after making the Senior world team. "I've just been going from one tournament to the next, to the next — Olympic Trials, world team trials, world championships. I've just been training my butt off this past year."
Welker looked at several options for her wrestling future. She thought about joining a high-profile regional training center. Thought about just staying home close to her family and with her personal coaches. Thought about moving to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. She wants to be a Senior world champ and win Olympic gold.
Then she visited Iowa City last weekend, when the Hawkeyes hosted No. 1 Penn State. She toured the campus and wrestling facilities. She discussed future name-image-likeness possibilities. She took in a sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The whole experience sold her.
"I got to watch the Iowa-Penn State dual, and I've never been to anything like that," Welker said. "I didn't really know what I was getting myself into. But the fans are crazy. A wrestler does a down-block or sprawls and the crowd goes wild.
"The fan support behind all the wrestlers is insane. I've competed on some really big stages, but I've never seen a wrestling dual or tournament with that many fans. It was electrifying. I can't imagine wrestling in front of that crowd."
She'll get her chance soon.
Welker will now be tasked with helping Chun build the Iowa women's program from the ground up. Already, the Hawkeyes have not just hit the ground running, but have come out of the gates in a full sprint.
The Iowa Athletics Department announced the addition of a women's wrestling program in September, becoming the first Division I Power 5 school to add the sport. Two months later, Chun was hired as the head coach after a five-year stint at USA Wrestling.
Now, another two months later, Chun has her first prized prospect in Welker, who is considered the No. 1 pound-for-pound women's high school wrestler in the country by USA Wrestling.
"This is an incredible moment for Kylie, her family and the Iowa wrestling program," Chun said in a statement, announcing that Welker has signed. "She is the complete package — competitively, socially, academically — and the perfect ambassador for the university and this program.
"We continue to make history in Iowa City. The work doesn't stop for me or for Kylie with this commitment. This is only the beginning for her and Iowa women's wrestling."
The Hawkeye women's team won't officially start competing until the 2023-24 season, but Barbara Burke, Iowa's deputy athletic director, ensured that those who join the program next year will still be able to train in Iowa City and compete unattached.
“We will work with coach and our compliance staff to make a path forward for those group of women,” Burke said in November, when Chun was hired. “They will be able to train and potentially compete unattached.”
That will be Welker's plan starting next fall when she officially moves to Iowa City. She can't wait to get back.
"This program has everything I need to help me achieve my goals in the long run," Welker added. "I'm really excited about it. I'm excited to help build the team."
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.