By Kelsey Lowry
DEL NORTE — The old saying, “Anything boys can do, girls can do better,” rings true for Del Norte’s Natalie Benavides.
Benavides is a four-sport athlete and plays soccer and volleyball, but what makes her so unique is that she is also a member of the Tigers’ wrestling and football teams.
She is a junior at Del Norte High School, which is a small mountain community in the San Luis Valley in Southern Colorado that most people couldn’t point out on a map. Besides the beautiful mountain views, high school sports are the main form of entertainment for the community. The stands are always packed no matter what sport is being played and the town always comes out in support of their teams and athletes.
Being a small school, it is also very common to see students take on multiple sports. However, it is not common to see a girl athlete play on the boys teams.
“We’ve never discouraged anyone from playing any sport, especially since this is a small school,” Del Norte athletic director and football coach Richie Madrid said. “It’s really nice to see kids play everything they can.”
Benavides’s biggest influence has been her two brothers.
“They’ve helped toughen me up,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to be like my older brother. When he started school, I wanted to start school, so when he started wrestling, I wanted to wrestle too.”
She started wrestling when she was only four years old in the pee wee leagues in the San Luis Valley. She not only fell in love with the sport, but she also developed a love for other contact sports.
Benavides joined an elite group in the 2017 wrestling season where she became the eighth girl in CHSAA history to compete in the state tournament. Despite not making the state tournament this year, Natalie took part in the second annual girls state wrestling tournament. The event is not affiliated with CHSAA, but highlighted standout performances where Natalie won the championship in her weight class.
Her accomplishments reach further than the wrestling mats and have helped her be exposed to other non-traditional girl sports, like football. This past summer, Madrid approached Benavides to see if she would be interested in playing on the football team.
“I approached her because I knew what kind of athlete she was, and I knew that she was determined and would put the work in to be successful,” Madrid said. “I didn’t know if she was taking me serious.”
With her track record of being an exceptional wrestler, Madrid knew she would be a great fit for the defense on the football team. Once she padded up, she proved that she deserved to be there.
“The first day of practice and actual contact she just got in there and laid hits on a few kids,” Madrid said with a smile. “The boys didn’t take it easy on her, so it was reassuring to see that and also reassuring that she would be alright because she could take care of herself.”
She’s not scared to try anything new and is constantly looking for new challenges. “I love knowing that I am making progress in every sport I play,” Benavides said. “My main goal is to always get better.”
She loves to standout and likes to be different than everyone else. While in the wrestling room, she was quick to point out the wall where all the wrestlers sign their names. She wanted to be distinctive and signed her name on the opposite side of everyone else. This is just one example of her being a strong independent girl who doesn’t have to go along with the crowd.
“She’s a tender heart and a friend to everyone,” Madrid said. “She works just as hard in the classroom as she does in sports and the younger kids really look up to her.”
Football and wrestling have provided her with a strong foundation to venture into other contact sports like soccer. When Del Norte started their program last year, Benavides knew she wanted to be a part of it because of the contact. With it being the second year of the soccer program at Del Norte, they are making great strides and are even looking at making the playoffs for the first time this year.
While she has a great attitude and personality, things have not always been easy for her playing girl and boy sports.
“People criticize me because I do wrestling, and play football and they say that I do it just for the boys,” Benavides said. “But then I just go out and do what I know I am capable of and that normally quiets them down.”
During the football season, she posted a harmless picture of her in her uniform and was met with unhealthy and upsetting comments.
“I didn’t react to it, but I had other people come to my defense,” Benavides said. “It was nice to see that support, especially because I didn’t even know a lot of the people who were sticking up for me.”
Not only is Benavides a well-rounded athlete, but she also inspires other girls to not be afraid and try new and unfamiliar things.
“I hope that girls continue to play and break those stereotypes,” Benavides said. “I want girls to know that they don’t have to play only one sport, they can do it all.”
Kelsey Lowry, a graduate of Sand Creek, is a student at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs and an intern for CHSAANOW.