Standing on the wrestling mat, Ximena Ibarra watched her opponent pace back and forth, back and forth.

Anger fueled her opponent. Ibarra let her mind settle. She took a deep breath. Her head cleared. 

Her opponent went for her right leg. Then, Ibarra lunged.

Using a move she calls “stealing the wallet,” Ibarra reached across the back of her opponent, like she’s going for a back pocket.

She pinned her opponent. 

Though her mind was quiet, she heard her coach yelling, “How bad do you want it?” and “You’ve got heart.”

Ibarra knew she was rock solid. When she heard that “ping” echo, she jumped up, yelling, “I’m going to Frisco.” The Trimble Tech High School senior had advanced from the District 5-5A meet to regionals.

Ibarra’s mental health journey is tied to her wrestling career. She has experienced depression, anxiety and sexual abuse, all of which she found healing for on the mat, she said.

Depression and anxiety are not uncommon among teens, or girls. Recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows 3 in 5 girls felt persistently sad and hopeless, a marker for depressive symptoms, in 2021.

Concerned about your teen experiencing anxiety and depression?

Review the CDC page describing symptoms, treatment and resources here.

Participating in sports helps young women in many ways, such as finding community and identity, said Shannon Scovel, a Ph.D. candidate studying the intersections of sports, media and gender at the University of Maryland.

“Wrestling, like so many sports for young girls, just creates a space for them to feel strong, feel empowered and feel confident and meet other women who are interested in the same things,” Scovel, who also covers college wrestling for, said.

Athletics was an outlet for Ibarra, she said, and she knows it can help other people if they just show up and try their best.

An offer she could not refuse

Ibarra walked to her first wrestling practice her freshman year of high school for one reason: a free grade of 100. She was failing a class, and her teacher was the wrestling coach. He told her if she just showed her face at practice, she could get a free 100.

As she saw two classmates wrestle, she remembers thinking: “These people are crazy, they’re going to get hurt.”

She doesn’t know why — maybe it was fate guiding her — but Ibarra went back to practice the next day.

This time, Ibarra stepped onto the mat.

“I got chunked,” she said laughing. Then, she got back up. 

“I’ve had a rough childhood, so getting back up, it felt like it was the right thing to do,” Ibarra said. “Because I was so used to getting back up and dusting myself off and going back again and again and again.”

When Ibarra looked to her coach, his face lit up. 

“He saw something I didn’t see and he saw it instantly when I got back up,” Ibarra said. “And I just kept showing up.”

Until COVID-19 shut down schools.

‘I lost my voice’

The pandemic put an end to practice, and Ibarra felt like something was missing in her life. Depression took over.

As a child, Ibarra experienced anxiety, but she said she didn’t know how to label it until she was older, she just knew she would have some “freakouts.”

Growing up, Ibarra experienced a lot of changes she said she wasn’t prepared for. Her mother is single and has eight children. As the middle child, Ibarra said her older sisters took care of her. But as they grew up and moved, it shifted the dynamic of the house.

“We as human beings want to be nurtured, that is our need and we go to our mother, our parents because that is what we’re introduced to when we’re born,” Ibarra said. “That not being there was very hard because I didn’t necessarily have that motherly figure, instead I had my siblings. And that’s not the same.”

Being isolated in the pandemic exacerbated her mental illness.

“It was very harsh because I would say I lost my voice,” she said. “I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t be around certain people because I would just break down. I would break down silently because no one would see it.”

People experience anxiety disorders in different ways, and for Ibarra it came as internal pain. 

Something in her brain wasn’t clicking, and it felt as real as everything happening outside her head.

When she returned to school, the pain followed, she said. Her routine was the same: walk to school, walk home, clean.

“But inside, I felt and I experienced this pain,” Ibarra said. “This pain to where there’s no voice. It was silent. For me it’s like I shut everything out and I’m stuck in that cycle of, ‘Are you OK? Are they going to leave?’ All these questions just fill inside my head and inside my body it just feels so real but everything is the same.”

To manage the feeling, Ibarra shut down. She zoned everyone out and turned to music. Sometimes, even her favorite 2000s pop hits couldn’t drown out the racing questions in her mind.

Then, she stepped back on the mat. 

The rise of women’s wrestling

Women’s wrestling is booming in high school and collegiate athletics, Scovel said. In 2004, women’s wrestling became an Olympic sport but did not get a lot of coverage.

In her coverage of the sport, Scovel is seeing grassroots efforts to get wrestling teams in high schools and colleges. In 2021, the University of Iowa became the first Power Five school to add women’s wrestling.

The University Interscholastic League, which oversees high school athletics in Texas,  sanctioned girl’s wrestling in 1999.

“(That) creates a pipeline now for young girls to be able to see themselves competing collegiately,” Scovel said. “There’s been a surge recently led by a couple of key women who I think have really changed the lives of young women coming up after them.”

To continue to change the lives of young girls, Scovel said one of the best paths schools can take is to provide opportunity in girls sports on campus. 

“Let girls know that option is there for them so they don’t always have to be the ones to do it,” she said. “We see so often in women’s sports that women have to advocate for themselves because the systems aren’t created for them.”

‘Now I’m here living my life, thriving’

Although wrestling helped Ibarra, she knows there is no magic cure for her mental health. Making it to regionals – where she came up one victory short of advancing to the UIL state meet – was a result of her hard work and makes her happy, but she knows it is not the end of her healing.

“Wrestling is not just a sport to me, it’s my life,” Ibarra said. “I say that because it changed my life. Starting, I was a completely different person. I actually wanted to die a couple of times and now I’m here living my life, thriving.”

Ibarra said through wrestling, she saw the fear she felt from her past sexual abuse diminish.

 She comes back to the mat to work out her problems, she said.

“Life is hard, and not a lot of things are going to be easy to climb up,” she said. “I know that if I could face even my own trauma and the sexual abuse and face the abusers and face the fear that I had since I was a child, then anyone can and they can move forward knowing that there’s hope.” 

Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Kristen BartonEducation Reporter

Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. She has previous experience in education reporting for her hometown paper, the Longview News-Journal and her college paper, The Daily...