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July 1, 2022

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Ridgefield’s Melissa Simmons going into Wrestling Hall of Fame

Simmons is also receiving Medal of Courage

By , Columbian staff writer

From an early age growing up in southwest Washington, wrestling occupied a large part of Melissa Simmons’ life.

The idea of living without the sport was unthinkable, but it was a possibility Simmons, a Ridgefield native, faced after suffering a fractured eye socket and retina damage from a car accident as an 18-year-old, with a promising career on the mat still ahead.

During a subsequent visit to Kaiser Permanente, doctors told Simmons and her mom, Nancy, that returning to wrestling wasn’t an option. The walk back to the car was silent and filled with tears.

“(It was) surreal, like I don’t know what to do now,” Simmons said. “At that point in time, I thought I’d never wrestle again.”

After several eye surgeries and an orbital implant, it took months of discussion between doctors and Simmons to ensure a safe return to competition and minimize the risk of her retina detaching further. Less than a year after the car accident, Simmons was back on the mat before enrolling at Oklahoma City University and joining the women’s wrestling team.

“Looking back, it was really quick,” Simmons said of that time. “Wrestling had always been my life. I didn’t know life outside of wrestling.”

The comeback from a seemingly insurmountable injury was one of several things Simmons overcame during a wrestling career that included a national championship at OCU in 2008, before placing second in 2010 and third in 2011. That was after Simmons earned seven national titles and All-American honors during her youth career.

The accolades made Simmons an obvious choice for the National Wrestling Hall of Fame as part of its Class of 2022, announced on Oct. 27, and also the recipient of the Medal of Courage award. The induction ceremony will be held June 3-4, 2022, at Stillwater, Okla.

Simmons, who’s now the director of operations for the Oklahoma women’s gymnastics team, was nominated for the hall of fame by her college coach, Archie Randall.

According to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, the Medal of Courage honors a wrestler “who has overcome what appear to be insurmountable challenges, providing inspiration to others.”

During her youth career, she tore her ACL two weeks into training at the U.S. Olympic Education Center in Michigan. Two months later, her best friend and teammate, Toni Copeland, drowned in Lake Superior. The car accident occurred on the one-year anniversary of Copeland’s death.

Just months after the car accident, she suffered a second ACL injury during training, and wore a bulky knee brace in addition to a mask for her first collegiate season, which culminated in a national title with both of her parents, Kim and Nancy, in attendance. She had knee surgery on the Monday following the tournament.

“My dad has always been my coach, so he’s always traveled with me at the youth age around the national tournaments, but that college tournament, specifically my mom was there for,” Simmons said. “It was really special having both my parents there to see that moment.”

Ahead of the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials, another ACL tear kept Simmons from getting cleared to compete. Within months of moving back home and working at Adidas in Portland, she texted Randall asking if she could return to Oklahoma to train.

Initially, she balanced competing in open events coaching as a volunteer through OCU, before taking the head assistant job with the men’s and women’s teams the following year. However, it quickly became apparent that juggling training and coaching wasn’t sustainable.

“I just learned for you to be able to train for the Olympics, you have to be very selfish,” Simmons said, “and I wasn’t in a position to do that as the head assistant coach … I had to pick my athletes.

“And I wasn’t 100 percent (healthy). Those three ACLs really took its toll on me. It was kind of a premature retiring. I wasn’t ready, but it needed to happen.”

Simmons later joined the North Carolina State wrestling program as director of operations, then took the same position at Oklahoma in 2019. Simmons handles the coordination of travel, planning meals and overseeing the team’s budget, among other duties.

“The goal of my position that I say is, I try to do everything to take stuff of the coaches’ plates, so they can focus on coaching and recruiting,” Simmons said.

With her induction into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame coming up in June 2022, along with being the first woman to receive the Medal of Courage, Simmons said it was all made possible by the support she received growing up in southwest Washington, and the local sports programs she went through.

“The opportunities that I had to wrestle at those programs, the coaches, all the wrestlers at the time and their parents were all very accepting and supportive,” she said. “I definitely would not be where I am right now without such a supportive environment. Some girl wrestlers, and most at that time, did not have that circumstance that I did.”

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