Ava Purifoy refused to back down or make excuses after losing her initial varsity match as Mount Vernon High School’s first female wrestler.
Yes the then-freshman felt overwhelmed, an understandable sentiment given her inexperience up to that point. But as is her custom, Purifoy chose to meet the challenge head-on with an indomitable spirit to succeed instead of doubting herself. As she prepared for her next match, Purifoy only strengthened her resolve. The strategy worked.
In less than a minute, Purifoy established herself as a force to be reckoned with after pinning her opponent from George Mason High School by first flipping him on his back.
“We try to get her to seize the moment in every facet of her life,” said Mount Vernon head wrestling coach Anthony McDuffie. “I use Ava as an example to my own 15 year old daughter all the time.”
Purifoy, who attended Fort Belvoir Elementary and whose mother Anelyn works at the base hospital as a physical therapist, had no intention of making history as a Mount Vernon athlete or even competing in any sports.
At one point, she considered tennis or track, but felt her 5-foot frame made her too small for either. Her passion was singing.
But she became intrigued by wrestling after watching her older brother Devin wrestle at Mount Vernon. Always the competitor, Purifoy figured she could wrestle better than him.
To reach her goal, Purifoy first had to convince her parents to let her wrestle. Her mother thought Purifoy was joking when informed of her daughter’s plans. Realizing Purifoy was serious, Anelyn hesitated granting approval. Her father Rodney did not want Purifoy wrestling for fear of injury competing against physically stronger boys. He was also uncomfortable with boys touching his daughter in such a close way.
Eventually, both parents overcame their reservations and supported her decision. In fact she convinced her dad by reminding him that he always told her she could do anything.
Mount Vernon’s first-ever female wrestler
Wrestling appealed to Purifoy for a number of reasons. She liked the one-on-one aspect. She also liked the physical demands of the sport as well as the discipline, the precision, focus and perseverance it required.
Coachable with a tireless work ethic, Purifoy absorbed everything her coaches taught her. Settling for second best was not in her nature. She finished fourth her freshman year in the Gunston District Tournament in the 106-pound division, but knew there was room for improvement.
Purifoy joined the Gunston Wrestling Club under coach Roy Hill after her freshman year and saw her development grow dramatically, especially working with other female wrestlers and coaches. Working with her brother also helped.
Purifoy finished second in districts as a sophomore and third as a junior, all at 106 pounds. She has a 62-43 overall record at Mount Vernon.
Besides regular high school meets, Purifoy also has competed in a number of other all-girls wrestling tournaments. There are no Virginia High School League-sanctioned girls-only division but she went 4-0 and took first last February at 106 pounds at the Virginia Girls State Championship at Hayfield.
She participated twice in the US Marine Corps/USAW 16U Junior National Championships. And in 2019, she finished fifth at the Super 32 in Greensboro (N.C.) and seventh in the Cadet Division and 5th in the Junior Division at a tournament in New York City. Purifoy is ranked No. 22 overall nationally for freestyle girls.
McDuffie attributes Purifoy’s success to growing up in a military family. Her father graduated from the United States Naval Academy and is now retired from the Navy.
Purifoy also sees the connection. Her drive, mental toughness, exacting standards and workout regimens all stem from pushing herself. She almost quit the sport twice, but stayed with it through her own determination and the encouragement of others, including her coaches.
“She has the right temperament,” said McDuffie, who has coached high school wrestling for 24 years, including 13 as Mount Vernon’s head coach “She digests things. You leave her alone and she works it out. She’s not scared. I’ve never had anyone like Ava. She will go down as the best female wrestler in Mount Vernon history.”
Ava Purifoy wrestles with a mission
As well as she’s done on the mat, Purifoy has faced pushback mostly from high school competition. Parents of opposing wrestlers have refused to let their sons wrestle Purifoy to avoid the potential embarrassment of losing to a girl. That led to Purifoy earning wins by forfeit on a number of occasions. Purifoy also said there have been instances where referees take longer to call a pin for her than for a boy.
“It’s disrespectful to me,” Purifoy said. “I want them to see me as an athlete, not just as a girl in the sport.”
All those experiences bother her, but they don’t deter her from staying the course. A two-time captain for Mount Vernon’s wrestling team, Purifoy sees herself as a role model. When she goes to the Gunston Club, parents will introduce her to their kids as someone to look up to and why.
Even with limited opportunities for girls-only wrestling events, change is coming. Twenty eight states now sanction state girls wrestling championships according to the National Wrestling Coaches Association. There’s increased interest in Virginia as well, where female participation numbers were up from 159 in 2016 to 232 in 2018-19 (no numbers were kept in 2019-20 because of COVID). Last season, Alexandria’s Thomas Jefferson High School’s Brianna Ta became the first female from the region to qualify for states. Although they compete in different state classifications, Purifoy has defeated Ta at tournaments.
“I see girls come out and I like to encourage them,” Purifoy said. ”It’s one of the most up-and-coming sports. When I see girls down on themselves, I tell them to stick with it. I’ve been there.”
The 17-year-old Purifoy will continue to promote female wrestling when she heads to the United States Military Academy.
An excellent student who carries a 4.1 grade point average, Purifoy had her choice of schools. But she wanted the structure and discipline a military academy provides.
While she plans to study data analytics at West Point, Purifoy also wants to start a women’s wrestling team there as well.
“There’s so much more work to do,” Purifoy said.