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ONE's Danielle Kelly recalls wrestling against boys in high school: 'It wasn't normal, but I loved it'

The submission grappling star opens up about her unique start in the world of combat sports.

World-class Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Danielle Kelly isn't afraid to do things her own way.

For instance, the 26-year-old grappling phenom competed in wrestling throughout her childhood years – but instead of facing other women, she competed against the boys. At a time when girls wrestling programs were few and far between, the American spent her formative years grinding out grueling practices on the school's only team.

Kelly knew that made her different from everybody else, but nothing could stop her from pursuing her passion.

"When I first started wrestling, it was kind of new," she said. It was a big deal when I was joining the wrestling team, even when I was in high school, but I was like in seventh grade. So then hearing a girl join a wrestling team at a public school I went to was weird, and then I got made fun of. It wasn't normal, but I loved it either way."

Wrestling proved to be a perfect complement to Kelly's jiu-jitsu training, creating a sense of urgency that can still be seen in her grappling today. 

Rather than allow herself to be put on her back or accept a disadvantageous position, she understands how to quickly scramble out of any bad spots.

"It was a little hard at first, just because I wouldn't give up my back a lot," the Silver Fox BJJ representative explained. "But it also helped me too, because I won't settle being in a position or settled being put on my back.

"I will get up right away. It's like flight mode – if you get taken down, you're getting back up. So, wrestling helped out a lot."

Beyond just practicing with the boys, Kelly also wrestled against them in high school competitions. And given her preternatural talent, it's no surprise that she defeated a fair share of male opponents.

In fact, the grappling star recalls that one such rival was particularly unsettled after their head-to-head matchup ended quickly.

"So I went against this kid, and I don't think he was super athletic, but he was pretty good, and he was trying to take it to me," she said. "So this really cool move I learned from the wrestling gym, I used it on him, and I basically pinned him in that (first) period. And I just remember his team was kind of surprised or laughing, and he was really, really embarrassed. I think he didn't shake my coach's hand at that time or my hand.

"He basically just went back to his team, threw his helmet, and just hid somewhere because he'd lost to me. I was wearing a hair cap, so it was pretty funny. I didn't blame him."

Inspiring the next generation of women

The Philadelphia-bred Kelly has left a lasting impression at the school where she formerly wrestled.

As she continues to grow into a worldwide submission grappling superstar, more and more girls are following in her footsteps – unafraid to test themselves in the typically male-dominated sport of wrestling.

For her part, Kelly is thrilled to see that progress and even feels a sense of pride.

"The old school I went to actually, the parents told me that their sons and daughters, I inspired them to try the sport out," she said. "A lot of them stuck with it, and they saw me doing it.

"So, you know, I felt really good to see that kids were watching me or they were willing to try something because of me, which I'm not taking credit away from their parents, but you know, it's pretty cool to hear that."

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