LOUISVILLE, Ky. — As grapplers size each other up before their bodies bash the mat, a clock counts down in the Fern Creek wrestling room.
There is one minute left — the same amount of time that separates Tiger wrestling twins Alex and Gabby Wilson.
"He's only one minute older than me," Gabby Wilson said.
The race between the freshmen started at three months old. Gabby stole a pacifier out of Alex's mouth and put it in hers. The competition was on.
"When they were still infants, Gabby kind of got up and started walking," said their father, Ozell Wilson Jr. "And Alex pretty much got up and started running to keep up with her. So, I think that they indirectly compete all the time. And as a parent, you have to be able to foster that and cultivate that in the right way."
Twins Gabby and Alex Wilson through the years
That way has always been wrestling. Their dad is a former wrestler and head coach at Fern Creek. Alex picked the sport up first. Eventually, Gabby followed.
"He would show me moves and I'd be like, 'Okay, this hurts, stop,'" Gabby Wilson said. "But I honestly liked this sport. And it was something that I was interested in doing."
It eventually got to a point where the twins' roles reversed. Alex, who also played football, had broken his arm and took a break from wrestling, saying he did not really want to do it once the two got to high school.
First-year Tiger wrestling head coach Kohl Dodd, who competed under the twins' dad for season, talked to Alex, knowing their family's history. Their mom Jai, an assistant principal who's worked at the school for 11 years, had called Dodd and told him she wanted the kids to wrestle.
Then, Gabby stepped in.
"I'm leaving football practice one day," Dodd said. "And Gabby is getting her ankle taped. She looks at me and she's like, 'Hey, are you the new wrestling coach?' I said yeah and she's like, 'You know what, I'm going to wrestle for you.'"
Just like when they were younger, Alex quickly followed.
"She's definitely the one who mostly convinced me to get back into wrestling," Alex Wilson said. "Just to hear Gabby saying that she wants to wrestle to make me feel more comfortable, she really helped me out."
Now, they work together every day at practice as drill partners. It might seem like a natural pairing, but Dodd was a little wary of it.
"I was kind of scared like, man, should I put them together," Dodd said. "She came up to me and Alex, and said, 'Can we wrestle together?' That's perfect."
"Just as much as I'm able to encourage him, it's the same way back," Gabby Wilson said. "If I'm ever down, I know, I can trust my brother to come in and get me back into gear."
"It's a good buddy system," Alex Wilson said. "We know when to go hard and when not to go hard."
That's a balance Gabby has had to learn during her first season as a wrestler. As her dad and coach always say, matches are just as much of mental battles as physical ones. And at first, she was uncomfortable on the mat, being timid to start the contact, waiting for her opponent to make the first move.
"It is absolutely terrifying because you don't know what you're going to do," Gabby Wilson said. "You don't know how your match is going to go. You just have to go out there and do it."
The nerves run in the family. Her dad would occasionally throw up before wrestling. But Dodd called the freshman one of the most coachable kids on his team. And eventually, she got over it by harnessing her feelings and expressing herself.
"When she uses her emotions, she uses tactics and her skills," Alex Wilson said.
"This is kind of like a way that I can control my anger," Gabby Wilson said. "And when I get angry, I can just take it and leave it on the mat."
One match let dad see that control. He noticed her becoming more adept at countering an opponent's move, still being aggressive, but waiting to attack when the right opening came. And then he looked at his daughter's face: Gabby bit her inside lip in before going to work.
"That's what I do when I'm getting ready to get physical," Ozell Wilson Jr. said. "To see myself in her in that moment, I was perfectly fine with where we were."
And where they ended up going. There's a board in the Tiger wrestling room listing all of Fern Creek's state wrestling champions, including Dodd. As Gabby became more comfortable, she wasted no time setting a high goal.
"She looks at me and she's like, 'Hey coach, has there ever been a female on that board,'" Dodd remembered. "I said, 'No, Gabby.' And she's like, You know what coach, I'm going to be the first girl on that board.'"
On March 6, 2021, that became a reality. With two pins and her mom screaming in the stands, Gabby won the 2021 Kentucky Wrestling Coaches Association state heavyweight title.
"Your name is going on the wall," Jai Wilson yelled.
"There's going be plenty of girls that are going to be inspired by Gabby and want to try a sport like wrestling," Dodd said.
"I wanted to cry, scream, go give the other girl a hug and say I'm sorry," Gabby Wislon said. "I had so many emotions running through me. It was awesome."
And all of them came out once she got to her wrestling family. First, it was a long hug with dad and Alex. Then, as the tears kept streaming down her face, she grappled her dad again.
"She came to me and in that embrace, I mean, it was only probably three or four seconds," Ozell Wilson Jr. said. "But it felt like an eternity. My son was going from from the sidelines, my wife was coaching from the sidelines. And it was Team Wilson."
That team never stops competing. It's three days after that title win and the clock hits zero on another Tiger practice.
"You're a state champ, we don't complain," dad told his daughter before raising his arms. "Good job, champ! Look, you the champ!"
And those expectations now turn to Alex.
"Now, we got to get two state champions in the family," Alex Wilson said.