TEMPE, Ariz. — A wrestler at Arizona State University is gaining national attention for her courage and tenacity.
Since arriving on campus as a freshman, Marlee Smith has been quietly breaking down barriers and opening doors for future generations of women wrestlers in Division 1 athletics.
Beating up the boys
As the daughter of youth sports coaches, Smith has been involved in sports for as long as she could remember. First as a cheerleader for the team her mother coached, then as a football player for her father’s team.
“One game, my dad was short players, so he just looked at my mom on the sidelines and was like, ‘I’m going to put pads on her’,” Smith recalls. “He put pads on me and put me in the game because I was already a tough little girl.”
As a fan of competing against the boys in a variety of sports, Smith fell in love with wrestling. In the third grade, people would tell Smith’s parents she should try out for wrestling.
“I was like, ‘alright, sounds fun to me. I could just beat up on some more boys,'” said Smith.
It felt like home
The New Jersey native traveled the country towards the end of her high school years, competing in wrestling tournaments. When the time came to decide on a college to attend, one stood out to her.
“There aren’t really any D-1 Women Wrestling schools,” explained Smith. “I had to choose, do I want a wrestling school, or do I want a place I love, get an education and wrestle? ASU- I loved everything about it; it felt like home to me. The wrestling community was great.”
Smith because only the second woman to walk on to ASU’s wrestling program. She trains with her male teammates but competes in independent, senior-level competitions across the country against women older than her.
Her desire to break barriers in wrestling and her work to promote the need for D-1 women’s wrestling programs in universities caught national attention.
That underdog spirit, that walk-on mentality
Walk-on’s Sports Bistreaux, a Louisiana-based, sports-themed chain of restaurants began as a class project for Louisiana State University walk-on basketball player, Brandon Landry. On a flight home on the team plane, Landry - as the story goes - drew up a blueprint of what Walk-on’s Sports Bistreaux would become.
In 2021, Walk-on’s started the Walk-on of the Week as a sort of a play of the week award focused on those athletes that must prove themselves to earn their opportunity.
“It just caught our eye and fit exactly what our brand and our company is all about,” said Jason Suitt, director of sports marketing for Walk-on’s Sports Bistreaux. “That underdog spirit, that walk-on mentality of never giving up and doing something that you love, working hard at it, and pushing through until you reach your dream.”
Smith was chosen as a Walk-on of the Week for the first week of December. The award allowed her to share her story on Walk-on’s social media platforms that reach a national audience. There, she made the case for the need for a Division 1 Women’s Wrestling program.
Paving a path for the younger generation
Like Sun Devil and Olympic Wrestler Kelsey Campbell before her, Smith hopes her involvement in wrestling will create more opportunities for future women wrestlers.
“I want to pave the path for the younger generation and give them the opportunity to be a part of a Division One Wrestling school,” Smith said.
While studying to become a Child Life Specialist- someone who works with seriously ill children and their parents- coaching is near and dear to her heart. Smith sees, soon, a Division 1 program where women like her can pursue wrestling against the top collegian talent across the country.
“It’s going to be good, there’s going to be a lot of women wrestlers.”
There promises to be more opportunities to promote her dreams of a D1 program, as Walk-on’s Sports Bistreaux plans to open a Gilbert location in 2023. Walk-on’s involves their “Family of Athletes,” like Smith or retired New Orleans Saints Quarterback Drew Brees, to promote their establishments.
For Smith, that means more attention can be given to the need for D1 Woman’s Wrestling.
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