By MICHAEL KELLY
FONDA -- Leading the cheerleading squad at a Fonda-Fultonville football game earlier this season, high school senior Kelsey Gray looks the part.
The head cheerleader's hair is perfect, braided and tied with a maroon-and-gold ribbon. Her white sneakers are spotless. She booms out her cheers through an ever-present smile, the kind that has helped the 17-year-old win beauty pageants in the past.
Cheerleading is one of Gray's two passions. The other? Well, that's wrestling.
"They're both just something I love to do," Gray says.
She's good at both, too. This is her third year being the cheerleading team's captain and she's twice captained the F-F wrestling squad. This past summer, Gray was a key member for the New York entry into the 2013 USA Wrestling Women's Junior Freestyle Duals in Fargo, N.D. Wrestling at 112 pounds, the F-F student helped the New York team to a team championship victory at the event.
"It was so exciting. It was the first time New York had ever placed higher than fourth," says Gray, who went 4-0 in the team competition and 4-2 in the individual tournament.
So excited with its win, the New York team -- which topped California in the finals -- broke the high-rise stage it was standing on when it got announced as the event's winner.
"We were jumping up and down too hard," Gray says.
Usually, Gray is a lot more graceful when it comes to landing her leaps. She does a little bit of everything when it comes to cheerleading, but she is one of the team's flyers. Gray's been cheerleading for F-F since the second grade, when she started tagging along with the older girls at the games.
"I was the little mascot for the longest time," she says.
Now, Gray cheers alongside the team's youngest member, 5-year-old Autumn Purcell, whose big sister, Lexi Baker, is on the squad.
"As soon as Autumn came to practice, though, Kelsey took her under her wing -- and she took a liking to Kelsey," says Kandace Rose, the cheerleading team's head coach.
Gray says the flexibility she possessed from growing up a cheerleader helped her when she decided she wanted to get into wrestling. Her younger brother, Kyle, was into the sport and, at first, she was thrust into the action against her will.
"I'd always be the practice dummy for him; my father would say: 'Come here, Kelsey, I need to show Kyle something,'" Gray says.
Soon, she decided she wanted to go on the offensive. She began wrestling in eighth grade, competing on her own because she was not ready to try to compete for F-F. Competing in tournaments all around the state in her first year, Gray says she wrestled about 60 matches.
"I didn't win a single one," she says.
That changed quick. Joining the F-F team as a freshman and wrestling at 103 pounds, Gray won her first varsity wrestling match.
"It was, like, so exciting," she says, stretching out her "so."
The reaction displays more of Gray's cheerleader side than her wrestling personality type. While she has no problem playing the perky type, a different side of her comes out on the mat. F-F athletic director Eric Wilson says it took him aback the first time he saw Gray wrestle, which was after having her in one of his high school science classes.
"In school, she's a sweetheart. She's just a nice, sweet kid. She's polite and an all-around good kid," says Wilson. "Then, you go to a wrestling match and you see her getting ready ... and that face she puts on, it's like: 'Holy cow.'"
"She's a spitfire," Rose adds.
One of Gray's wrestling coaches had the same experience as Wilson. Mike Paquette helps coach Gray when she trains with the New York Titans, an offseason training group based in Albany. Paquette's first impression of Gray was that the beauty pageants and cheerleading had taken some of the ruggedness from her.
"At first, I thought she was a little soft," says Paquette. "But she's not soft. She's a very determined wrestler. ... I like coaching her. She works hard and wrestlers harder."
Gray says that she's never found the experience of competing in a male-dominated sport too be awkward. With the exception of when she competes with the New York team for national tournaments, she usually is training with and competing against males. Eric Moyer, an F-F wrestling teammate for the past two seasons, says Gray's Braves teammates never really put much thought into the uniqueness of the situation.
"She fits in, it wasn't awkward with her," says Moyer, who graduated in 2013. "It was just an everyday thing going to practice with her."
Gray says she does not get treated differently because of her work on the mat. She says her girl friends think her participation in the sport is cool and that her boy friends are mostly wrestlers, anyway.
"So, we talk about wrestling stuff, like wrestling shoes," she says.
When she says that, she laughs and catches herself, realizing how it sounds.
"Guys talk about their wrestling shoes just as much as girls talk about their shoes," she says, growing animated. "Wrestling shoes are a hot topic."
So is the future. Gray's post-high school goal is to earn a wrestling scholarship to one of the 20-plus college in the country that currently offer women's wrestling. After that, she wants to attempt to compete in the 2020 Olympics in the sport which was recently given second life as one of the games' sports.
"I really hope to get a chance to compete," she says.
Before any of that, though, Gray has a senior season ahead of high school wrestling -- the big goal for her is to make it to state qualifiers -- and a final cheerleading season to finish this fall. Her cheerleading coach says that she just hopes Gray's time flying through the air rooting for the Braves' football team does not harm her upcoming season.
"I just don't want her to get hurt for her wrestling scholarship," says Rose. "She could get dropped or on one of her tumbles she could do something. It's a dangerous sport, believe it or not."
By the looks of it, Gray should be just fine.