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PUERTO RICO PROFILES
More Than Sugar, Spice
By Frank Carroll
March 4, 2001
Naomi Santiago - Taking charge.
KISSIMMEE -- Evelyn Montanez quickly objected when Naomi Santiago, her daughter, announced two years ago that she was going to wrestle for Gateway High School.
"I wasn't for it. Not at all," Montanez said.
"Mom's too ladylike, too girlish," Santiago said.
Montanez brought her daughter to America "because she wanted me to be fluent in English," Santiago said.
Montanez isn't anti-sports. Growing up in Puerto Rico, she played volleyball and softball. But wrestling? "That's for boys," Montanez said. "Girls with muscles look like men."
Two years later, Montanez's opinion is unwavering, but a hint of pride wrinkles in her tiny laugh. After all, her daughter is a state champion wrestler.
"I'm happy," Montanez said. "I bought her earrings, took her to a movie and out to eat. We celebrated."
Santiago, 16, got involved in wrestling because "I grew tired of being a couch potato."
Santiago has lost just four matches in two years. This season, she crafted a 21-2 record with 21 pins.
"I feel taller. I'm only 5-8, but I feel 6-4," said Santiago, a 171-pound junior. Two pins on Feb. 3 reaped a state title in the 188-pound bracket at Oviedo High. One pin took 45 seconds, the second only 17 seconds.
"Naomi did it with hard work," said Coach Clark Coldiron, who watched Gateway's girls capture a mythical state title among 28 schools after placing third in 2000. "She's come far. Where she used to rely on strength, she has gotten to a point where she beats people on finesse and skills."
Wrestling isn't a huge leap from Santiago's only previous athletic endeavor, but it has been a decade since she played rugby as a 6-year-old in Aibonito, Puerto Rico. A left knee injury that required surgery kept her into retirement until last year, when she tried out for wrestling on a whim.
"I just went for it. I liked it right away -- the whole rough thing, getting bruised up," Santiago said.
Consider that Santiago has been involved in ROTC clubs -- she carries the rank of second lieutenant -- since the sixth grade and her career goal is to become a Marine Corps pilot. She is glad that she didn't follow through on a desire to play defensive line for the varsity football team.
"I watched a practice and realized was probably going to get wrecked," she said.
Coldiron said Santiago had "adequate" skills when the season began. "Once she saw what she was capable of doing, her intensity picked up. She got very focused on where she was going, what she wanted to accomplish."
Santiago's father, Roberto Santiago, rarely leaves Puerto Rico, but the construction worker stays abreast of his daughter's wrestling prowess.
Puerto Rico is a distant memory for Santiago, but she enjoys infrequent returns to her homeland to renew family ties with eight brothers and three sisters.
As for her choice of competitive sports, Santiago is deaf to critics.
"I don't care what anyone says," she said. "I hear a lot of wisecracks and tell them those are fighting words on my block. Once I threaten them, they go away. I think even some of the guys are scared of me."
Frank Carroll can be reached at email@example.com or 407-931-5937.