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State titles and bonus daughters

by FRITZ NEIGHBOR
Daily Inter Lake | February 8, 2023 11:55 PM

One thing you may not know about Amber and Bella Downing — I didn’t — is that they are not related.

So when you hear about the four sets of siblings in the Flathead wrestling room, Bella and Aiden Downing aren’t one of them. Brave Brawler 126-pounder Aiden Downing does belong to Amber, by the way, along with two younger sons: Kellen and Brenden.

“Three boys of my own,” Amber Downing says. “Bella is kind of my bonus daughter.”

One of many, it should be noted, because Amber more or less guides the Flathead Bravettes wrestling team, which this weekend will chase a third straight state championship in Billings.

They go in as Western AA Divisional champs, though it was a fairly narrow escape last weekend: Second-place Butte had 209 points to Flathead’s 236 (with Glacier not far back at 193).

Butte and Billings Senior would seem to be the main threats to knock Flathead off the mountaintop. But the Bravettes have some dudettes, not the least of which is Bella Downing.

“She has been a longtime family friend,” Amber Downing said. “We met her family through my husband’s business.”

Matt Downing has his insurance office; Kristin and Paul became clients. So it is that Bella and Kellen (an eighth-grader) have been hanging around since they were in diapers. Amber also allows that — depending on the day — she and Bella do look alike.

“Everybody thinks we’re related,” Amber Downing remembered. “So we might as well hang out.”

Bella Downing is 26-1, by the way. The loss came to Butte’s Sophie Grunhuvd, but Downing beat the fellow freshman 6-5 for the 120-pound title at divisionals.

She seems to be, for lack of a better term, born for this. Her timing is certainly good: Girls wrestling became an MHSA-sanctioned sport in 2020-21, and Downing — who was doing jiu jitsu at age 6 — became the only girl in the Columbia Falls Little Guy Wrestling program just a couple years before. She was 10.

“I’ve been wrestling off-season ever since,” she said. “Freestyle and Greco, and mostly folkstyle.”

Last summer she went to a national tournament in Iowa and finished seventh. She’s been all over the Western U.S., in fact. And then high school wrestling came along when she was a seventh grader.

“I was really happy, but I was also nervous,” she says. “I didn’t know how many girls were going to join.”

Plenty, as it turned out.

“Their team was really strong, so I wanted to do the post- and preseason along with them,” she said. “And see how I liked it. I just liked the intensity and how many girls there were. It was like a family.”

Flathead is taking four divisional champions to State — three of which beat Butte wrestlers in the finals — including Reina Koehler (100), Alivia Rinehart (138) and Lucille Libby (235). No matter what happens, Amber Downing is pleased to see girls get all the chances to wrestle that she didn’t growing up in East Helena.

“Looking at these cool opportunities for these girls to train with other girls, to have a female coaching in the room, to have the great support of the boys team,” she began.

“My coaches were incredibly supportive and kind to me, but there were no other girls around.”

Bella Downing has no such problem. What she does have is Grunhuvd on the same side of the bracket, and an eighth-grader on the other side that is 36-0: Meadow Mahlmelster of Lockwood.

“We have to go through a couple good ones, but if she does what I think she’s capable of doing, she’ll meet her,” Amber Downing said.

It would be a marquee matchup, one that nobody thought possible five years ago. Or at least I didn’t.

Fritz Neighbor can be reached at 758-4463 or fneighbor@dailyinterlake.com