Rasmussen wedges her way into wrestling history books
At the end of April, Kelli Rasmussen took the mat in Las Vegas, ready to vie for national recognition in a Masters competition on behalf of the Minnesota Storm, a wrestling club with Olympic athlete alumni and ties to USA Wrestling, the national governing body for the sport in America.
The spotlight was on.
The stage was big.
To Rasmussen, though?
It was just another day.
“I was there five months ago,” says the renowned wrestler. “Vegas is often a venue for a lot of those kind of meets, and I had been there in December, too.”
It turns out Vegas, for all its glitz, glamour and promised glory as the backdrop for top-level wrestling meets, hardly fazed Rasmussen.
And Rasmussen, long before her return to Nevada’s hotspot, had already fazed the game.
Eleven years earlier, she was wrapping up a career at Blue Earth Area High School, from which she graduated in 2006. It was with the Buccaneers where, as far as Rasmussen recalls, she became the only girl to make it through BEA’s varsity wrestling program.
“There were some girls who tried out after me,” she says, “but I don’t think there were any ahead of me.”
And Rasmussen did not just make it through high school wrestling, either.
She dominated it.
A champion of Blue Earth’s Dick Maher Invitational, a collector of gaudy season records and an international tournament invitee who hit the mats in Austria and Sweden among other stops, she made a name for herself much like the Mahers, Gene Lybberts and Jack Eustices of BEA wrestling fame did.
She took inspiration from her brothers, Rich and Todd, who got her started in the sport.
And she did it all from a state no, a country that, at one point, offered fewer than 10 total college-level wrestling teams geared specifically for females.
For small-town Minnesota, for wrestling in the Midwest, she was a revolutionary.
A Cadet/Junior Women’s national champion in 2003, a national runner-up in the same category the following year and a third-place finalist among national women wrestlers in both 2005 and 2006, Rasmussen then lept from BEA to across the border in a seamless transition to the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada.
She left the states, where she once held a No. 2 ranking among all female high school wrestlers, only to find more success as a two-time all-conference honoree, then returned to find even more at Winona State University.
A two-time national champion and runner-up at Winona, Rasmussen worked her way into a coaching role in the Minnetonka School District, all the while instructing and wrestling herself for MN USA, the sport’s representative for the United States Olympic Committee.
So, no, Las Vegas really did not startle her.
In fact, Rasmussen, daughter of Dean and Retha, currently has her sights set on something much bigger than another wrestling trophy to add to her collection anyway.
Her job in Minnetonka, coupled with assistant coaching duties for both track and field and boys wrestling, limits her own meet schedule to about two or three competitions each year.
“I practice whenever I can get into a room,” she says. “I’m coaching two out of the three seasons, then I do my own workout, find a wrestling partner.”
But what is truly on her radar is expanding the movement she embraced with her own wrestling career.
“We’re trying to get girls wrestling to be a varsity high school program,” she says. “And a university sport.”
The representation for women-based wrestling programs remains thin across the United States, especially in the Midwest, so Rasmussen, outside of responsibilities at school and with MN USA Wrestling, is proactive in recruiting younger versions of herself to train and compete.
“Wrestling gives you great qualities,” she says. “It gives girls another opportunity to earn scholarships, to be responsible, to have that grit and go to school and travel.”
That is why, with help from other area coaches and support from her family and husband Derek Metzger, she is welcoming youngsters from all over the state, getting them in the gym and helping them succeed in the face of limited opportunities.
“We pull girls from all over,” she says. “They’re from Buffalo to Bemidji to Southern Minnesota and Rochester to Fairmont.”
Little by little, one girl at a time, Rasmussen hopes to keep breaking the mold of how wrestling is perceived. How wrestlers are classified and diversified.
And, along the way, if she can squeeze in another shot or two at returning to the mat, where she was vastly outnumbered but found her own sense of responsibility, she will take it.
In Las Vegas or beyond.