A surprise from Alaska

Homer wrestler O'Donnell is an unexpected contender

Posted: Sunday, August 01, 2004

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Wrestler Tela O'Donnell lives in a dorm room at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, a long way from home.

Home is Homer, Alaska, where gender barriers are as rare as sunshine in winter.

"There's nothing you can't do," said Tela's mom, Claire O'Donnell.

Including be a woman and wrestle.

Tela has made Homer, a place where the sun shines five hours a day in winter, feel warm all over. She's the first Summer Olympian in Homer's history, making the 2004 Olympic team in late May, about six weeks before fellow Homer resident Stacey Borgman made the Olympics in rowing. Women's wrestling makes its Olympic debut in Athens.

Her high school principal, who doubles as a wrestling coach, and her mom are among those planning the trip from Homer.

"Of course I am," Claire said. "I would go in a casket if I had to."

To get there, Tela pinned national champion and world No. 2 Tina George twice in one of the trials' biggest surprises.

Another surprise - Tela did it in her first year on the U.S. national team.

Don't expect her to follow the crowd. She learned by example the value of going her own way. Homer can do that to a person.

It's a town of 5,000 about 200 miles south of Anchorage, where Alaska Highway 1 (the Seward Highway) dead-ends in a five-mile sand spit that pokes into Kachemak Bay, part of the Gulf of Alaska.

Homer is known as the place "where the road ends and the sea begins," said Susan Cushing, wife of Homer's mayor.

It's also where Tela got started, born to a single mother who spent five years clearing her own land and building a two-story house for the two of them.

"My mom's really tough," Tela said. "She doesn't do things conventionally."

Pregnant with Tela, Claire O'Donnell lashed a pillow to her belly to keep the chainsaw's growl from causing harm to her child's ears.

"You need a house, you build it," Claire said by phone from Homer. "You're a woman, so what? So wrestling wasn't an appropriate sport for women. So what? You just follow your heart's desire. That's what I liked about Homer."

Their homestead, shared with chickens, horses, turkeys and sheep, is one of two homes on a shared 40-acre parcel of land 10 miles from town down a dirt road.

It's so remote, Claire has to think a moment before remembering the house number in her address. When she went into labor with Tela, Claire had to change a flat first before driving herself to the hospital.

Wilderness was the back yard. One afternoon, Tela watched a grizzly climb up their porch and peek in the window.

Before Tela started wrestling in eighth grade, she tussled with sheep so her mom could shear them.

"The poor sheep," Claire said. "She would wrestle it to the ground and would hold it there. I was terribly slow, but I didn't hurt the sheep."

Fences were few. If Tela wanted to ride her pet horse, Wingo, she'd have to yell and maybe hike for a couple of hours to find him.

Tela worked summers at Tutka Bay Lodge, a wilderness lodge where she was a groundskeeper and cook. Sometimes she'd work a salmon drift net.

"It was a nice place to grow up," said Tela, who started high school in Homer but later graduated from Nikiski High School.

Homer runs in her veins. It is present in her dorm room, where her guitar is just a request away, and Alaska figurines occupy conspicuous posts on her countertops.

It's present in her photo album, eagerly produced to show a visitor pictures of a remote community with a stunning shoreline and big sky.

"She's a free spirit," U.S. women's coach Terry Steiner said.

It's there too, in the haunting despair of one of her oil paintings, a portrait of an elderly man working as a janitor because he can't afford to retire.

A sign proclaims Homer the "Halibut Fishing Capital of the World." Salmon fishing is big, too, and tourism. It is located on Kachemak Bay.

"I'm not used to cities," Tela said. "I like the woods. I'm pretty independent."

O'Donnell hadn't been back in almost two years, until a celebration in mid-July. But Homer had not forgotten her.

A bouquet of flowers, sent by the town's city council, sat on a table of her dorm room in June. Days before, Homer's chamber of commerce sent a big envelope with Homer promotional materials, a newspaper clipping of its recent high school graduation (she knew some kids getting diplomas), and a Homer hat and pin.

"That's so sweet," she said, opening the package in the training center dining hall.

"We follow our children closely, and when they make it this far we certainly want to make them recognize they're exceptional," said Jack Cushing, Homer's mayor.

When asked, Tela points out she's not Homer's biggest celebrity. There's singer Jewel (Jewel Kilcher), and Tom Bodett, the Motel 6 guy.

Claire was a mime in Chicago who studied under Marcel Marceau before moving to Homer.

"Homer's a good place to raise a kid but not to be a mime," Tela said.

So Claire switched to landscaping and dried flower arrangements. She didn't utter a peep when her daughter played junior varsity football, or started wrestling in eighth grade.

Tela washed out at football, where she played safety and some guard, and didn't do well at soccer either. In fact, she didn't like sports in general.

"I'd try to hide during recess," she said.

Junior high teacher Deb Lowney knew how to reach Tela. Compete against yourself, she said. Find a sport where you can express your individuality.

First it was running. Then it was wrestling. Now she's going to the Olympics, and taking a big chunk of Homer with her on her odyssey to Athens.

Said the mayor: "We're proud of her."

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