All Alejandra Alfaro, a senior at Arvada’s Pomona High School, wants to do is wrestle.
Tune out the noise. Focus on her next move. Win.
And feel safe while doing it.
The 18-year-old is ranked third in her weight class among girls wrestlers in Colorado, yet she will not be participating when regional matches start Friday. She also will not wrestle for a title in the 235-pound weight class when the state tournament kicks off Feb. 15 at Ball Arena.
This school year, Alejandra transferred to Pomona from Denver’s East High School to escape the trauma of multiple shootings in and around the school during the spring 2023 semester. But officials at the Colorado High School Activities Association determined her move to Pomona — a wrestling powerhouse — was athletically motivated.
They denied her appeal to compete for a state title.
“I want nothing more than to be on that mat with the support of my teammates,” Alejandra said. “Wrestling is my peace. I don’t have to deal with any problems. I don’t have to deal with the outside world. I put on the headgear. I put on my ankle band then it’s just quiet.”
Alejandra and her family’s decision to enroll at Pomona thrust them into the controversial world of high school transfers, where moves can bring accusations that athletes are jumping from school to school in a quest for a championship — and allegations that coaches and athletic directors are trying to create lasting sports powerhouses.
In Alejandra’s case, one student’s trauma over gun violence appeared to many as an opportunity to “shop” for a better wrestling program and a chance for a top-notch team to add to its arsenal of talented athletes.
CHSAA, the governing body for sports at 367 Colorado high schools, has strict transfer rules as it tries to maintain a level playing field. The league wants to prevent the state’s top athletes from picking the same school, CHSAA commissioner Michael Krueger said.
Krueger, who has the authority to approve and deny transfers to new teams, allowed Alejandra to compete during the regular season, but barred her from the regional and state competitions. He agreed she had a legitimate reason to leave East and that remaining active in a sport was in her best interest.
“The concern was why did the family proceed to drive past numerous schools that have girls wrestling programs that were actually close to their home and choose a top-ranked girls wrestling program,” Krueger said.
“Something so scary”
Alejandro shared her first-period English class with Luis Garcia last spring at East High. Luis had a bright personality, and having him as a classmate helped kick-start the school day, she said.
On the morning of Feb. 13, somebody shot Luis while he sat in his car outside the school near East 17th Avenue and City Park Esplanade. He died two weeks later after his family took him off life support. No one has been arrested in connection with his killing.
Alejandra’s class put a flower on Luis’s desk and it sat empty the remainder of the year.
“You go to school and you’re supposed to come home,” Alejandra said. “He went to school and he didn’t come home. That’s terrifying.”
Earlier in the year, East had been “swatted,” a nerve-shaking prank that led armed police officers to swarm the building. There also was a shooting outside a nearby convenience store where East students were buying midday snacks.
The stress of gun violence was piling up.
Then, on March 22, a student who was being checked daily for weapons upon entering East pulled a gun on two administrators and shot them inside the building, seriously wounding both. He later died by suicide.
Alejandra and her younger sister, who was a freshman, were in East’s auditorium for a special program when the shooting happened. She and her sister were separated as teachers ushered students to safe places for lockdown.
Alejandra can vividly describe seeing an athletic trainer with blood on her hands because she helped treat the wounded administrators. She recalls watching cellphone video of one man being loaded on a stretcher and taken outside to a waiting ambulance. She remembers frantic text messages to her sister.
“It’s unreal,” Alejandra said. “Like, you just don’t know what to do. You don’t know how to comprehend it. Your mind freezes. Like, it’s something so scary. You’re just stuck there.”
Although Alejandra started seeing a school counselor she hid her anxiety from her parents, not wanting them to be worried or disappointed. She started walking her sister to her classes. She parked her car close to the building. She planned escape routes.
“I wouldn’t sit in class and worry about a math test on Friday,” Alejandra said. “I would worry about, ‘Are we going to make it to Friday?’”
Alejandra’s parents, Elias and Rosemary Alfaro, realized how bad things had become after reading one of their daughter’s journal entries.
The family began “picking up the pieces to the things that are broken,” Rosemary Alfaro said.
The decision to leave
The Alfaros decided their daughters would finish the last five weeks of the semester at East and then talk about whether to stay or transfer.
“By the end of the year, that’s when we realized it was not a viable option,” Elias Alfaro said. “And that’s when the athletics came in.”
The family wanted out of Denver Public Schools. They began researching schools in other districts. And, yes, they said they considered wrestling programs, although Elias Alfaro insisted that was not their priority for Alejandra.
When word spread that Alejandra, who placed fourth in her division at the 2023 state tournament, wanted to transfer, some schools started recruiting her, the family said. One offered her dad a job in hopes she would enroll. But that school’s student body was even larger than East’s and Alejandra didn’t feel comfortable.
Some suggested the Alfaros use a phony address. But Elias Alfaro said that would be dishonest.
Alejandra said she was familiar with Pomona through wrestling. She knew it was smaller and she had friends there. And it felt safe.
She and her younger sister, who does not wrestle, enrolled.
Alejandra can rattle off the safety precautions at Pomona like other teens can rattle off Taylor Swift’s hits: school resource officers, security guards, controlled entries and exits, cameras, ID badges, police cars parked outside, smaller classrooms.
“There’s so much reassurance to it,” she said.
Alejandra also signed up for the Pomona wrestling team.
A God-given talent
Victor Gomez, who coaches Pomona’s girls, said he knew of Alejandra after seeing her matches the previous two years. But Gomez said he did not recruit Alejandra to Pomona and was surprised to hear she had enrolled for the 2023-24 school year.
He welcomed Alejandra to the team and then heard the story behind the transfer.
“In wrestling, you’re an artist. The mat is your canvas,” Gomez said. “You can paint whatever picture you want. For her to go in there and create what she wants has been great for her.”
Alejandra started wrestling in her sophomore year. Wrestling is a technical sport that requires years of practice to master, so it amazes Gomez that Alejandra is good enough to be ranked and to have a chance to compete in college.
“Alejandra is very agile and has a God-given talent for the sport,” Gomez said. “She’s using it as a catalyst to better herself. Which is fantastic.”
Gomez has witnessed Alejandra’s trauma, too.
During a match last month, a loudspeaker popped loudly as someone was starting to make an announcement. Alejandra pulled her knees to her chest and tucked her head, Gomez said. She looked like a scared 5-year-old as she asked her coach if everything was going to be OK, he recalled.
Gomez placed his hand on her shoulder and said, “Yes. I’m here and I’m not going anywhere.”
“Until you see those moments you really don’t understand it,” Gomez said. “When you have to do that for a kid… I don’t know if I have the words to explain it. I felt so bad for her.”
Other choices existed
For Alejandra to be eligible to wrestle at her new high school, multiple people and schools needed to sign off, including Pomona, East and the Jeffco Public Schools athletics league.
Colorado students are allowed to transfer if their families move to a new district, their guardianship changes or parents separate, CHSAA’s Krueger said. Outside of those situations, the burden is on students and their families to prove there is a hardship that necessitates a transfer.
The Alfaros applied for a hardship waiver and Pomona sent it to the Jeffco Public Schools league. The league decided her transfer waiver did not qualify as a hardship and therefore she was not eligible to wrestle for Pomona at all. The vote was unanimous, Krueger said.
The league’s position then went up the chain to Krueger. But he felt differently about the situation.
Krueger decided to impose a “restricted varsity designation,” meaning Alejandra could wrestle during the regular season but could not compete for a state title. Wrestling was in her best interest and her reasons for leaving East were valid, Krueger said.
But, he said, the choice to go to Pomona was athletically motivated because there were other girls wrestling programs closer to the Alfaro family’s residence in Denver’s Elyria-Swansea neighborhood.
“It’s really, really important to note she was not denied an opportunity to wrestle at the varsity level all year,” Krueger said.
The Alfaros appealed Krueger’s decision to a three-person committee at CHSAA. That committee supported Krueger’s decision.
“During the conversation in the appeal, it was revealed that the family had ‘shopped’ around and narrowed down school choices to two schools,” the CHSAA committee wrote in a letter to the Alfaros and athletic directors at Pomona and East. “The family is happy with their decision of transferring to Pomona for safety concerns and safety perceptions. The family was aware of the possibility of loss of eligibility in the sport of girls wrestling due to the transfer.”
The CHSAA decision has stirred conversation within the ranks of girls wrestling.
Alejandra’s family provided The Denver Post with letters of support from multiple high school coaches, including those at East, George Washington High School and Pueblo Central High School. They also received a letter from Alejandra’s counselor at East, who agreed she would benefit from a change.
However, multiple athletic directors and coaches declined to comment for this story, saying they did not have permission to speak about the case.
Jackie Carson, whose daughter wrestled at East last year, also pulled her child from the high school after the shootings. The new school, Rise Up Community School, doesn’t have a wrestling team so her daughter, Genevieve Garcia, wrestles at North High School. Her hardship waiver was granted with no objections, Carson said.
The difference, she said, was that Alejandra is a superstar wrestler. And Pomona has the top-ranked girls team in the state this year.
“Alejandra has been a powerhouse since day one. Alejandra is going somewhere,” Carson said. “Alejandra has the right to wrestle. She hasn’t done anything wrong.”
Transferring schools is political in the sports world, said Sally Roberts, director of Wrestle Like A Girl, an organization that promotes the sport for girls. But students consider so many factors when making changes — academics, teammates, safety. Athletics is just one piece of the high school experience, she said.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to the student’s well-being,” Roberts said.
A lot more goes into a championship than a single wrestler, Roberts said. Teams must fill athletes in 10 different weight classes and there is no guarantee all of them are going to win on any given day.
“One person isn’t going to make or break a team,” she said.
At this point, the Alfaro family is out of options for Alejandra’s chances to wrestle at the upcoming state championships.
They were told they could hire a lawyer and sue CHSAA, but Elias Alfaro said that was not an option. The family doesn’t have the money or the time for a lawsuit. He is more worried about paying for Alejandra’s college tuition.
“I just feel so hopeless,” he said.
CHSAA is failing Alejandra because school shootings should not prevent an athlete from competing, Elias Alfaro said. He hopes his daughter’s story helps change minds in the future when other athletes are traumatized by violence and want to change schools.
“Their job is to take care of the kids, but they’re not taking care of the mental health and well-being of the kids,” Elias Alfaro said. “She has to pay with her eligibility.”
Alejandra said she has an offer to wrestle at an NCAA Division III college next year, although she is not ready to publicly announce her destination because she wants it to be a surprise when Pomona holds its next signing day ceremony for athletes. Division III schools do not offer athletic scholarships.
She wants to be a nurse or a physician’s assistant — and to wrestle as long as possible.
Meanwhile, Alejandra said she continues to train and practice on the slim hope that CHSAA officials will have a last-minute change of heart and allow her to participate on Friday. It would mean so much to have her name in CHSAA’s records books in her senior year.
If she doesn’t wrestle, Alejandra said she will be at the tournaments, cheering on her team and the friends she has made through the sport.
“It’s not going to be the end of the world,” she said as her voice cracked. “But right now, in this moment, it’s the end of the road for me. It’s like taking candy from a child. You put it right there and they can’t reach it. But they want it.”
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