Elle Kaufmann understands the irony.
The Lovett School freshman, recently crowned the school’s first-ever girls state wrestling champion, has forever idolized her older brother, Aidan. In fact, it was Aidan’s emergence as a standout in the Lovett youth wrestling program eight years ago that initially sparked her fascination with what, at the time, was a male-dominated sport.
In the mid-2010s, girls wrestling in Georgia was in its nascent stages and there were no more than 50 female amateur wrestlers statewide. But Elle, even as a seven-year-old, saw the mental fortitude Aidan exhibited on the mat, how he embraced the sport’s punishing physicality, all while continuing the family tradition initiated by their grandfather and later passed on to their father, Rocky (two-time Georgia state champ), and uncle.
And yet for all the credit Elle gives to Aidan, himself a part of two championship teams at Lovett, and who hopes to wrestle for the U.S. Air Force next year, for jumpstarting her wrestling career and inspiring her to become particularly invested in middle school, she does not want her achievements to be the reason that girls throughout Metro Atlanta pick up wrestling.
“I don’t want to be a trailblazer,” Elle told the Atlanta Jewish Times days after capping off a phenomenal freshman season in which she was named the GHSA Girls Champion at 130 pounds, unscored on with three pins and an immaculate 10-0 finish in the finals. “I don’t want to do this thing that nobody’s done before and, all of a sudden, more people are joining in. I want them to love it, too, just because they found it and it’s interesting to them.
“All I’ve ever really wanted is to be treated the same as the guys. I want the coaches to treat me the same. I want the wrestlers to treat me the same. I want the parents to treat me the same. That’s all I want.”
While Elle, who also participates in softball and track and field at Lovett, enjoyed a storybook ending to her rookie season of varsity high school wrestling, Aidan (he goes by the moniker, “Bear,” on the mat, something that began years ago in recreational baseball), wasn’t so fortunate. During the semifinal round of last month’s state championship tournament, what turned out to be the final match of his stellar four-year run at Lovett, Aidan suffered a pair of devastating injuries (broken clavicle, separated shoulder) before falling to Isaiah Scott, the eventual undefeated state champion, in the 215-pound weight class competition.
Although, later that day, the Lovett boys would ultimately celebrate their second consecutive state championship—a feat the school had not accomplished in nearly two decades—Aidan, who ultimately finished fifth at States, was grappling with excruciating physical pain while remaining crestfallen over the fact that his high school career, one that required the flexibility to shift weight classes in the 195—223-pound range, concluded without one final personal victory. And yet, immediately upon returning home, Aidan hopped into his car and drove over to Macon to watch his little sister make history.
“You could see him [Aidan] beaming with pride and happiness for his sister,” recalled Rocky. “Instead of jealousy, it seemed to even lessen the blow for him in that moment. After all, he just witnessed his best friend, his beloved little sister, accomplish her goals in dominant fashion. His ability to compartmentalize his physical and emotional pain to feel genuine joy for others gives a clear understanding of who he is.”
With his high school wrestling career now in the books, Aidan aspires to obtain his pilot’s license next month (he’s already gone on roundtrip solo flights to central South Carolina), en route to serving his country in the Air Force next fall. Certainly, the lessons from the mat can be applied to his next endeavor.
“The reason I love wrestling is because it teaches you a lot of things,” said Aidan, who began wrestling as a four-year-old and soon joined the Lovett youth wrestling program, which was started by Rocky. “But also, I think, even though it is, in a way, an individual sport, you learn how to work with your teammates and that is something I think you can use pretty much everywhere.”
When Elle considered why she gravitates to such a grueling sport, one in which she aspires to be an All-American, the Lovett multi-sport athlete responded, “It [wrestling] is the only sport that I’ve come across in which you have to be mentally tough, much more mentally tough than your average person. There’s no other sport where I’ve met people who have undergone the strenuous events that wrestling pushes you through.”
When both siblings take it to the mat, their attachment to Judaism takes on special meaning.
“I do think because of that faith [Judaism], especially coming from my dad, the aspect of toughness is something which came from it,” noted Aidan, who had his bar mitzvah on the summit of Mount Masada in southeastern Israel. “It [Judaic background] has impacted my wrestling in the way that neither of us will give up mid-match for anything.”
Elle was quick to concur, citing the plights of the Maccabees and Egyptian slaves as historical examples of collective defiance that continue to resonate with her as a teenage athlete breaking barriers.
“I do think there’s some aspect of our religion,” she said. “You’ve always heard these stories of how the Jews are warriors. I think that has always been a prideful thing, especially for me. I’m very proud of my community. I’m very proud of what we’ve overcome throughout the years.”