Jackson High Phenom Tai McBride Wrestles Like A Girl — And Can’t Be Beat

16-year-old Tai McBride is pretty much like any other Wyoming teenage girl, until the whistle blows. Then she becomes 120 pounds of, 'f*** around and find out.'

JN
Jake Nichols

January 27, 202412 min read

Tai McBride is undefeated wrestling for Jackson Hole High School so far this season.
Tai McBride is undefeated wrestling for Jackson Hole High School so far this season. (Courtesy Photo)

Sixteen-year-old Tai McBride is pretty much like any other teenage girl, until the whistle blows. Then she becomes 120 pounds of 'f*** around and find out.'

Younger brother Taz can attest to that. He was her unenthusiastic sparring partner in the siblings’ growing up years. Tai wiped the mat with him.

“Taz kind of took a beating. He is a different build than Tai. She is thick that way, and he is a string bean,” says Tai’s mom, Heidi. “He gets a lot of credit for her growth. It all began in the living room.”

Taz is a gifted athlete in his own right. He’s just more likely to be found at the skate park or on the slopes.

“Tai-grrrl,” as she is affectionately nicknamed, is a Wyoming wrestling phenom. A junior at Jackson Hole High School, McBride is undefeated (12-0) this season. She won 38 matches last year without a loss and was ranked No. 1 in the state.

Until Wyoming officially sanctioned girls wrestling for the 2022-23 season, McBride was twisting boys into pretzels. Wrestling girls only for the past two seasons has not been without its challenges, but there is literally no one in the state who is likely to beat McBride unless she’s having an off day.

Elsewhere in the country there are some gifted wrestlers, Tai says. She has her sights set on winning state, then competing in a national showcase in Las Vegas and another in Fargo. Finally, McBride hopes to hit World Team Trials in Spokane, Washington, this April 12-14.

Grounded And Humble

What makes greatness in a teenager? After all, most girls at that age are busy pushing back against parents as they strive to carve out their own life space. Sixteen-year-old girls can get petty and cliquey.

But Tai’s mom sees a well-rounded girl blossoming into womanhood, even if it means a few more mat burns and bruises than she would have guessed for her daughter a decade ago.

“I am in constant awe of this child of ours,” Heidi said. “Wrestling is intense, unforgiving, masterful, empowering, humbling, courageous and an emotional sport like no other. It’s certainly not for everyone, but this girl has found her passion. We are so incredibly proud of her.”

Director of Female Wrestling at the Wyoming Amateur Wrestling Association and a star high school wrestler herself, Jessica Brenton runs the Wrestle Her podcast. She featured McBride recently and hit on what makes the tussling teen so successful so soon.

“The first time I ever met her I knew immediately that this girl was going to be one of the best. Her passion and drive is amazing. I could go on and on about this girl. Such a role model,” Brenton said. “Keep making those dreams come true, Tai McBride, and I’ll be cheering for you always.”

That drive, that passion: It defines McBride when it comes to wrestling. She’s skied (hey, she’s from Jackson) and she has been involved in competitive gymnastics, but nothing fires her up like grappling. It’s everything.

“I can't begin to explain wrestling. It’s the greatest sport ever,” Tai said. “You learn every life lesson: how to be a good teammate, how to keep your composure, how to realize the fruits of hard work. Everything else in life becomes so much easier after wrestling. Because of wrestling.”

  • Tai McBride works out with weight training.
    Tai McBride works out with weight training. (Courtesy Photo)
  • Tai McBride grew up wrestling her brother, Tax, as siblings will do.
    Tai McBride grew up wrestling her brother, Tax, as siblings will do. (Courtesy Photo)
  • Tai McBride has won a lot over the course of her wrestling career.
    Tai McBride has won a lot over the course of her wrestling career. (Courtesy Photo)
  • Tai McBride is quick to credit her coaches Ryan Costagno and wife, Tracy.
    Tai McBride is quick to credit her coaches Ryan Costagno and wife, Tracy. (Courtesy Photo)
  • Mike, Heidi and Tai McBride.
    Mike, Heidi and Tai McBride. (Courtesy Photo)

‘There Are No Excuses’

McBride gravitates easily toward the “mano a mano” discipline that is as pure and ancient a contest as there is. No teammates to blame. No equipment, no ball — and nowhere to hide.

“Wrestling is a very true and down to earth sport. There are no excuses. You leave it all out there on the mat,” Tai said.

There is beauty in the simplicity of the sport. But how does mom like watching her kid wrestle?

“I still wonder at times why she likes it. It does not look like fun,” Heidi said. “She had a lot of great success at a young age, throttling boys from across the state. But she has been humbled as well. And she has taken plenty of beatings.”

Careful about calling Tai a tomboy. She doesn’t much care for the term and doesn’t think it describes the 16-year-old she is today.

“When I was younger, in elementary, maybe. But I like to do all the feminine things and all that girlie stuff,” Tai said. “I guess I'm a normal teenage girl, minus the wrestling.”

Mom agrees.

“Tai has always been girly girl, but she can flip that switch from shopping for prom dresses to stepping out on the mat,” Heidi said. “I really appreciate that about her. She goes both ways — hanging out with her girlfriends and hanging out with her boy teammates — and she is welcomed in both those worlds.”

Second Grade Grappler

“I was 7 years old. A summer camp counselor, who was a wrestler, was handing out flyers at school one day,” Tai recalled. “I was already wrestling with my little brother all the time. I thought, ‘Might as well make it official.’”

McBride was hooked from the first practice session. She ran home that day and pestered her parents about joining the Jackson Hole wrestling club even if she would be the first girl. The only girl.

“It was second grade. She was so excited,” Heidi said. “‘And we get to go to Palm Springs,’ she said. ‘I think you mean Rock Springs,’ I corrected her.”

Sure, why not? That was Heidi and Mike’s response to Tai’s new wrestling venture. But before her parents were going to drag her all over the state and the country, they had to gauge Tai’s dedication.

“‘We are happy to take you anywhere. We will drive you to the moon if that’s what it takes,’ we told her,” Heidi said. “But you have to be committed. You have to take it seriously and you are not going to quit halfway through.”

Any questions about Tai’s commitment were answered when she left home bound for a wrestling showcase in Izu, Shizuoka, Japan. On her own, at age 10.

“How many kids do that?” Heidi said. “I mean, Tai was always a confident kid from the beginning, but she didn’t even look back as she walked away down the terminal.”

The McBrides credit Jackson coach Ryan Castagno for being open and welcoming to a new experience. Tai immediately began wrestling boys for practice, learned some techniques, and was ready for real competition.

Throughout her middle school years, McBride dominated. There were few boys her age and weight that had Tai’s strength. And she was quickly learning nuances of the sport that made her even better.

Gender Bender

McBride fought two opponents in every match in those early years — the crouching boy across from her and the stigma of girls wrestling boys, especially in a state like Wyoming.

Tai said coach Castagno treated her like everyone else. But elsewhere in Wyoming, McBride was not always welcomed with open arms.

“I've had boys refuse to wrestle me. The first time, I was pretty young, maybe 8 or 9,” McBride said. “I was too young to know what sexism was. My parents sugarcoated it, trying to reinforce it wasn’t my fault.”

It wasn’t long before McBride got wise to what was going on. Either boys forfeited when they were slated to wrestle her, or they got beat by her and took it hard.

“We absolutely saw stigmas,” Heidi said. “I remember one time at a tournament where one of the kids wouldn’t wrestle Tai. He forfeited. But it wasn’t him. It was the parents that said their boy is not wrestling a girl. They didn’t want their boy losing to a girl.”

It was a few select parents who were the ones not exactly showing good sportsmanship. In their minds, withdrawing saved not only a beating, but potential embarrassment.

“I remember one kid lost to me and his mom headbutted him after. ‘How could you lose to a girl?’ she screamed at him,’” Tai said.

And God save any boy who thought he was in for a creampuff contest drawing McBride for an opponent. Hell hath no fury …

“At one particular club tournament in Montana, Tai was rolling through the boys in her weight class, taking them down left and right,” Heidi said. “I overheard one of the favorites talking smack about her, degrading her. Tai heard it too, but she didn’t care. It just fueled the fire. She ended up beating that kid and winning it all.”

McBride said she began to grasp better the social stigmas when she hit eighth grade.

“In middle school, your body is going through puberty. And it’s hard for a boy growing up in Wyoming. You are supposed to be tough, strong, unemotional,” Tai reasoned. “They look bad if they lose to a girl, but they don't take much satisfaction in beating a girl. It’s kind of a no-win situation they are put in.”

  • Tai McBride wins a match wrestling in Japan.
    Tai McBride wins a match wrestling in Japan. (Courtesy Photo)
  • Tai McBride had to wrestle boys until 2022. She beat most of them.
    Tai McBride had to wrestle boys until 2022. She beat most of them. (Courtesy Photo)
  • A tiny Tai McBride on the podium of a tournament in Japan.
    A tiny Tai McBride on the podium of a tournament in Japan. (Courtesy Photo)
  • A champion's mindset from the outset, young Tai McBride has always been driven.
    A champion's mindset from the outset, young Tai McBride has always been driven. (Courtesy Photo)
  • A 10-year-old Tai Mc Bride, last in near row, takes part in wrestling seminar in Japan.
    A 10-year-old Tai Mc Bride, last in near row, takes part in wrestling seminar in Japan. (Courtesy Photo)

High School Adjustment

With girls’ high school wrestling still not yet sanctioned in McBride’s freshman year, she continued to wrestle boys, but it got tougher.

“Even though she was very successful in middle school, coach Castagno warned us it would get much harder,” Heidi said. “He said, ‘Get ready, it is going to be different now. Boys are getting stronger and the physicality ramps up.’”

By high school, word about Tai was out. Just about every boy no longer saw her as a girl, but as a legit threat on the mat. They took her seriously, and they took her down.

Tai wrestled a mix of boys and girls her first year of high school. She did well enough to make it to state at 113 pounds, where she was up against only the best, and only boys.

“It was a big jump from middle school. I did not win a single match at state,” Tai said. “I felt kind of hopeless. Only wrestling boys and their increased testosterone. I was feeling kind of defeated.”

McBride was ready to walk away from a sport that had transformed her young life.

“It was a point of burnout, I think. She wasn’t loving it anymore. She needed a break,” Heidi said. “We had always been nudging her along as far as diet and sleeping habits and training. But during a short period without wrestling, a time of reflection, she had to decide for herself whether she really loved it.”

Tai came roaring back with renewed vigor. She took more ownership of her life and her interest in wrestling. She had always been driven, but now she was goal-driven.

McBride booked more time with her personal trainer, Crystal Wright. When she wasn’t wrestling she was at the gym, getting stronger.

Girl Get Their Own Sport

When Wyoming sanctioned girls wrestling in 2022, Tai would never again wrestle another boy unless it was practice. McBride went 38-0 her sophomore year.

“As soon as [wrestling] got sanctioned there was a big switch,” Heidi said. “Tai has always been incredibly strong and powerful. There were now all these girls, and a lot could not match Tai’s strength, her brute strength.”

After tussling with boys, fighting her own gender was welcomed change.

“I am the smallest on my team. I'm the only girl on my team so I only wrestle boys in practice,” Tai said. “So, it is nice so when I wrestle girls because they are not as strong and they feel a lot lighter.”

So, wrestling girls is a breeze, right?

“Girls are not too easy by any means. Boys are a lot stronger, sure. But at the end of the day a lot comes down to technique,” Tai said. “Plus, girls are more flexible and fast. And they have a chip on their shoulder. It’s like a cat fight with girls.”

Tai points to a few girls around the state who she really respects. Green River’s Lily Harris, Kemmerer’s Laynee Walker, and Thermop’s Lilly Quintanilla.

Tai was a shoe-in for a state title last year, but a partial tear of her MCL the day before competition left her devastated. It was the first major injury of her career.

But Wright got the young grappler rehabbed and Tai’s sights are set high once again.

Brain And Brawn

Wrestling is a whole lot more mental than one might imagine. Heidi calls the sport a “chess match on a mat.”

“I believe wrestling is just as mental as it is physical. It’s so easy to get the wrong things in your head and blank in a match,” Tai said.

To increase her wrestling IQ, McBride watches a ton of film on other competitors. She favors Wyoming’s standout sophomore Jore Volk. “He’s an incredible athlete,” she says.

Tai said her strengths, beside her strength, is her mental toughness. She doesn’t let an occasional mistake get her down. She’s good at keeping her composure.

How much of Tai’s grappling game is mental? She says she wants to maybe go to college to become a sports psychiatrist one day to help other athletes.

Patience, though, that’s something Tai says she still needs to work on. Every match, she can't wait to dive for a leg.

“There is a period of feeling each other out. You often have to wait for your opponents’ response and react,” she said. “You need to wait for the right time to take your shot. You can't rush things or force anything or you will exhaust yourself.”

A final word from Tai’s mom is important.

“Look, I understand she gets a lot of ink for being an anomaly,” Heidi said. “But Tai is a very humble person. She feels like there has been a lot of focus on her.

“She’s happy for that to bring attention to the Jackson wrestling program and to the sport, but she would like more focus to be on her teammates and her coaches. She wouldn’t be here today but for them.”

Tai McBride relaxes at home in May 2023. She can be a girly girl, mom says.
Tai McBride relaxes at home in May 2023. She can be a girly girl, mom says. (Courtesy Photo)
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Jake Nichols

Features Reporter