ARLINGTON — Walking the halls of Arlington High School is 15-year-old sophomore Aspen Carbajal.
Among her favorite subjects are robotics and biology. Her love for animals inspires her to become a veterinarian but also may be an engineer.
But when the final bell rings, Aspen hits the mat — she’s a wrestler for Arlington High School.
“She’s probably one of the more-popular kids on the team,” coach Rick Iversen said. “She always comes in with a great attitude.”
Aspen isn’t like other girls, and not just because she participates in a male-dominated sport. She’s deaf.
“The reason I want to do this is to show that my deafness does not define me,” Aspen said. “Wrestling is all about you and that person in front of you.”
For Aspen, wrestling has been a catalyst, a stepping stone into trying new things. Aspen has then seen herself helping in her school’s shop and drama classes.
Other than that, Aspen is like any “typical teenager.” She has good and bad days, occasionally argues with family and hangs out with friends, said her mom, Christina Carbajal.
Just because she can’t hear and speaks with an unusual “accent,” Aspen is not shy.
“I’m just shy at first,” Aspen said. “But when you get to know me I can be very loud.”
Aspen was diagnosed at age one and was schooled from three years old to middle school at the Northwest School for the Deaf in Shorewood.
She “got her dose of reality” when she was enrolled at Arlington. To help her break-in, Aspen wanted to play a sport.
What sets Aspen apart from the rest is her courage to try anything.
“If she wanted to parachute,” Christina said. “She’d be the first to do it.”
So it was no surprise when she chose wrestling as her sport.
She picked it up as a freshman. “It has helped me make friends,” she said. “I feel more accepted.”
Her dad, Alex Carbajal, played basketball for Arlington and knew the assistant wrestling coach, Jim Smoots.
Smoots approached Aspen’s mom, at the Stillaguamish Athletic Center where she works, and proposed the idea of Aspen wrestling.
“My coach walked into the middle of science class one day,” Aspen said. “Iversen said, ‘I heard great things about you. I want you to try wrestling.'”
Apprehensive at first, Aspen discussed it with her parents. They agreed it would be good for her, and she showed up to preconditioning turnouts.
“Before I knew it, I was on the team and fell in love with the sport,” Aspen said.
It wasn’t easy at first. Aspen was dreadfully shy and self-conscious in using her voice. It helped that her dad knew the coaches.
“I have a lot of people looking out for Aspen,” Alex said. “Arlington has been very supportive of her.”
One of those is senior team captain Clay Hunter.
“I personally talk to her as much as I can,” he said. “It comes with time, but she’s been doing great.”
Aspen cannot hear, but uses sign-language and lip-reading as her means of communication. She signs and uses her voice at the same time.
She wears a cochlear implant on the right side of her head near her ear to help her detect some sounds.
“It’s a lot of fun working with her. She does a pretty good job communicating with us,” Iversen said. “Her first strength is that she is so sincere to want to succeed.”
Aspen’s teammates will use themselves as models to demonstrate wrestling moves.
“We use other people to go through the motions so she can get it,” said her teammate, Robin Hernandez.
Hernandez has noticed remarkable improvement in Aspen’s wrestling ability.
“Now she can get points on people and get takedowns,” Hernandez said. “She’s just a great person to be around, and I’m glad she’s on my team.”
Hernandez and Aspen share an interest in dancing, a hobby Aspen picked up in middle school, sometimes busting out dance moves before matches.
Along with Aspen’s determination to learn, Hernandez has experienced her fellow wrestler’s improvements first hand.
“She keeps telling me ‘I’m going to get you one of these times,'” Hernandez said. “She’s a really good sport and is never complaining.”
Although Aspen can’t hear, her overcompensation in vision gives her an unexpected advantage.
“I am very aware of my surroundings,” she said. “I can make my next moves based on vibration and sight.”
She is also able to concentrate better by drowning out noises, Smoots said.
But perhaps her best attribute is her intelligence.
“She is tremendously bright so when you show her something she catches on quick,” Iversen said.
At home, Aspen unwinds by watching TV with her 7-year-old sister, Tatum. One of her favorite programs is Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D, and has an interest in superhero comics, with Spiderman among her favorites.
Aspen also has a fascination with card tricks. She will watch videos online, learn them and show them to her family.
Her dexterity and visual concentration has allowed her to flourish into other fields, such as shop classes.
“It’s kind of acceptable for her to be focused on her own thing,” Christina said.