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South Valley Riverton Journal

Wrestling champion (and middle linebacker) thrives while living with autism

May 02, 2022 08:00PM ● By Rachel Aubrey

Charlise Matsuda won the state title in the 3A division in February. The competition was held in Richfield, Utah. (Photo courtesy of Jarom Matsuda

By Rachel Aubrey | [email protected]

When you see 16-year-old Charlise Matsuda, she may be sporting her Summit Academy team swag. Like most teenagers, she is busy balancing her studies and practicing her skills as an athlete. It is likely that you will see her on a grassy field practicing or in a gym training. What may not be so visible is that Charlise also lives with autism, as do her two older brothers Eli, 18, and Darius, 20. Yet despite this, there is more to Charlise, she is a daughter, a sister, a student, an athlete, a competitor, a champion and a coach.

Upon entering preschool, Charlise was considered deaf and mute, unable to speak the way her peers were. After being diagnosed with autism at age 3, Charlise has found her way into adolescence and into the world of football and wrestling. While both Charlise and her father, Jarom Matsuda, admitted that they don’t consider their family to be a “sports family,” she has nevertheless had some extraordinary experiences as an athlete. A middle linebacker for the Summit Academy boy’s football program, and a quarter back for the all-girls Utah tackle football team, the Bone Crushers, she is also a near 4.0 GPA student. All the while, living with autism.

“It’s not like I necessarily have a fear of saying I’m autistic,” Charlise said. “It’s not the first thing you need to know about me.”

When she’s not busy with football, Charlise’s time and attention is on wrestling. In February, Charlise won first place in her weight class at the 3A state championships after only one year of competing in high school. What began as a hobby six years ago in Colorado, where the family lived prior to moving to Utah, quickly turned into a passion. Even though her parents had no experience with the sport, and even with all the losses that came early on, she remained dedicated and followed the family rule of never quitting once you start.

“It was confusing at first, I lost every match and every tournament and it was frustrating for me,” Charlise said. “I had to keep going ‘cause I never quit, my parents taught me not to quit.”

Early on in the most recent wrestling season, Charlise lost four matches in a row by pin, meaning her opponent was able to put both of Charlise's shoulders in contact with the mat for two seconds.

The losses were hard, but she used them as a motivator to learn and become better for the next match. Summit Academy wrestling coach Tyler Wagner had no idea about Charlise’s autism for at least a month into the training season. Wagner described the only girl on the boy’s wrestling team as tough and tenacious, never sitting out if things are hard and never complaining.

“It was cool to have her on our team,” Wagner said. “Failure does not seem to bother her, she is always battling though.”

Wagner said that the other teammates really supported and helped Charlise throughout the season and hopes other girls will see what Charlise has accomplished and want to follow suit.

Charlise has found a place within her school community to belong and sometimes that can be hard for those living with autism. It can also be hard for parents of autistic children to know how to fit in as well. Matsuda said that having three children diagnosed with autism has better equipped his family to know how to understand others and how to help others succeed. Matsuda admitted that early on he did a lot of things wrong when it came to parenting children living with autism.

“We had to throw out the entire playbook and start from scratch,” Matsuda said. “We realized that the things we did that we thought were good and right and good parenting were not what our kids needed.”

One of the things that Matsuda and his wife learned was that traditional public school was not the right fit for their kids. Although the family resides in South Jordan, the decision was made to enroll the kids in Summit Academy in Bluffdale forsmaller class sizes. Charlise will graduate in 2024.

“In our family we have chosen to celebrate it rather than treat it as anything negative,” Matsuda said. “Everyone has challenges in life.”

Both Charlise and her family have been able to overcome the obstacles that often accompany autism, and they celebrate little victories whenever possible. Their hope is that people react first with compassion when they see someone who may be struggling, regardless the reason.