MHS wrestlers move on in their sport: Two to Snow College and the third to the U.S. ArmyJul 03, 2023 12:56PM ● By Carl Fauver
It’s pretty rare when we witness history changing completely, over a short period of time. But that’s what Murray High School graduate Elleni Johnson has done, in just the past half-decade.
Admittedly, it’s just a little corner, a little sliver of history Johnson has watched evolve. And, granted, that sliver of a change has no real impact on most of us. But for a young woman whose favorite pastime and all-consuming passion is wrestling there’s a big difference between 2018 and 2023, here in Utah.
Five years ago, Johnson was barreling toward ninth grade at Hillcrest Junior High. She was one of very few female wrestlers in Utah. She wrestled that freshman season for her father—Murray High School wrestling coach Theros Johnson. When she finished the year, Johnson became only the second female wrester in MHS history to complete a season for the Spartans’ boys wrestling team.
Fast forward to now. Girls wrestling has become a sanctioned Utah High School Activities Association sport. Johnson won a state title (going undefeated in the 2021-22 season, at 145 pounds where she was named the state’s Outstanding Female Wrestler). And, this past winter, she was an assistant coach for the up-and-coming Copper Hills High School girls wrestling team in West Jordan.
That’s a lot of change, in the time most of us take to replace our car tires.
“It is crazy to see how many girls are wrestling now,” Johnson said. “It is so awesome. When I was in ninth grade, there were so few wrestlers. I loved it at a young age, because I grew up in a wrestling family. I would go to watch my dad coach. I was with him in the practice room. I got to see how hard they work and the right things to do, to be a good wrestler. I knew at a young age, I wanted to do that.”
Even if it was almost unheard of, five short years ago.
Earlier this spring, Johnson joined Murray male wrestler Ken Phillips for a joint commitment ceremony, to take their wrestling skills to the next level. Phillips, and fellow Spartan male wrestler Chandler Thompson (who signed his commitment document a few weeks later) will wrestle for Snow College this winter. We’ll circle back to them in a moment.
Meantime, Johnson committed to wrestle for the United States Army.
The U.S. Army offers something unique to elite athletes, whose eyes are on representing the country in upcoming Olympic Games. The “Army World Class Athlete Program,” or WCAP, features male and female athletes who are “regular” members of the military, up through basic training. Then their duties diverge.
According to the program website (armywcap.com), “The U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete Program allows top-ranked soldier-athletes to compete at the international level, while also serving their nation in the military. Our members train and compete throughout the year—and aim for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. WCAP soldiers also conduct essential outreach activities. They hold clinics, speak to high school and college audiences, talk with athletic teams and make appearances in support of Army recruiting stations. WCAP also grants the Army important national visibility and reinforces public pride in our Armed Forces. Since 1948, 446 soldiers have represented the United States at the Olympics, earning 111 medals in a variety of sports. WCAP continues that proud tradition.”
All that history aside, Johnson just knows WCAP will soon mean a change of address and basic training next spring. In fact, (due to early press deadlines) she may already be gone.
“I will move to Colorado Springs in late June or early July,” she said. “I will go through basic training just like everyone else, sometime next spring. But then my duties will involve training, with an eye on the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.”
A couple of months ago, Johnson may have been hoping to earn a spot on next year’s USA Olympic Women’s Wrestling team, to make the trip to Paris. But a serious leg injury and surgery has pretty much ruled that out. She’s in the midst of a rigorous rehabilitation program now.
Of course, between now and 2028—and once her leg is cooperating again—Johnson will participate in plenty of non-Olympic, world-class wrestling events. She’s expected to travel the world competing for WCAP—something she’s already enjoyed.
“My first international wrestling competition was to Russia in 2019,” Johnson said. “I’ve also wrestled in Mexico, Sweden and India. My favorite trip was probably to Rome, because I went as a training partner. That meant I did not have to make a weight. I was able to enjoy all the Italian food.”
After attending a private high school back east for a couple of years (on a wrestling scholarship), Johnson returned to Murray High for her junior and senior years. During her undefeated junior year, Johnson was one of three girls who practiced with her father Theros Johnson’s boys team, as the Spartans’ girls “team.” After spending last winter competing in freestyle wrestling (outside the high school program), she graduated from MHS this spring.
Meantime, Phillips and Thompson, the two male Spartan athletes moving on to wrestle for Snow College, actually graduated the year before Johnson in 2022. They each chose to take a gap year and are now excited to become Badgers.
“They just started the Snow College men’s wrestling program a year ago, and I emailed the coach to tell him about my wrestling accomplishments,” Thompson said. “Then I sent a wrestling film. By the time I was invited down for a campus visit, they were also interested in Ken (Phillips). We made the trip together in March.”
It turns out the two were not headed to Ephraim, the only place most of us ever think of when we hear “Snow College.” Instead, 50 miles southwest of Ephraim, the college is establishing a second campus in Richfield. That’s where they’ll wrestle, study and live together as roommates.
“It’s pretty small; they only had about three buildings,” Phillips said. “We were told we’d have to find our own apartment in town. My goal is to wrestle for two years there…complete my general studies…and earn my associate’s degree.”
Phillips finished third and fifth in divisionals, in two seasons wrestling for Murray. He did not place in the state finals. Meantime, Thompson was third in state at 157 pounds his senior season and won more than 100 matches as an MHS wrestler.
The two are not receiving financial compensation from the school for competing. They each hope successful Snow College wrestling careers can land them at a four-year institution—on a wrestling scholarship—to complete their bachelor’s degrees. The only four-year school with a men’s wrestling program in the state is Utah Valley University (UVU). Both say they’d love to earn their way into the Wolverines wrestling program in 2025.
Phillips and Thompson are expected to make the move to Richfield in mid-August. Right now, Snow College is still searching for a new head wrestling coach. Their season this coming winter will be only the school’s second, ever. λ