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Remember the Wrestler: Cynthia Sue Cantonwine aka Cindy Johnson, West Burlington


So girls wrestling is picking up, which could be cool for me, being the father of 3 daughters myself, but when I see some of the nations best female wrestlers, I can’t get myself to become nearly as blown away by their talent as most do.  CALM DOWN, that statement isn’t as arrogant as it comes off.  I mean, when the first girl wrestler that you ever saw or knew well ended up becoming who you would consider to be the most tenacious female wrestler to come out of Iowa 15 years later (and holy cow…Megan Black has been insanely good since she was a tyke as well), it kind of skews your standards…for not every girl wrestler can be Cindy Johnson…but it seemed that way for a while considering she was the primary female wrestler that you’d see scrapping in her era. When I watch wrestling events, I always catch myself thinking, “that girl is great, but she’s no Cindy Johnson.” 

Female wrestlers, LISTEN UP!!! This article is about a female wrestler who might as well be considered the Mickey Mantle of Girls Wrestling in Iowa. Not reading what she has to say would be equivalent to not respecting the legends that came before you… It’d be like Spencer Lee ignoring Dan Gable…doesn’t happen.  Because in Cindy’s day, she was more or less, the face of girls wrestling in Iowa. She is the one who changed guy’s mindsets from, “ok, I wrestle a wimpy girl opponent” to, “oh crap, if I’m not ready, this girl might pin me in 20 seconds.” I once saw Cindy put one of the best wrestlers in Iowa HS wrestling history to his back to start the match.  This guy will go nameless, for I hear it upsets him and he denies it adamantly….but I saw it.  So did everyone else. It happened. Probably the only time that dude ever got put in that position in his HS career.  How’s that for crazy?!? This is in no way intended to disrespect this guy, for I feel he is one of the best ever. It’s just a cool Cindy story.

Cindy played a crucial role in spreading the popularity of girls wrestling throughout our state.  Cindy entered the game, she dominated in a manner that no one had really seen a girl do until that point which planted a seed in several future female wrestlers’ hearts and provided them with hope that they could compete and they could dominate, even if they had no choice, but to wrestle boys. Cindy helped pave the way for the likes of Megan Black, Felicity Taylor, Ruby Roof (youth star), Kaitlyn Holschlag (quit after JH…she was LEGIT), etc. If it weren’t for Cindy Johnson, who knows if the spark that ignited the girls wrestling flame would have been strong enough to keep the fire going.  


I have wondered what it was that made Cindy as good as she was. I mean, she was unapologetically and fearlessly physical and operated with a fire that bordered anger at times. What made her so abrasive out there? I mean, it’s not like she was tormented by her siblings…not that I would assume anyways.  Her siblings are Chad, Cathy and Christopher.  Chad didn’t get to wrestle until his last year of HS (despite practicing for years), because West Burlington didn’t form a program until then.  I remember the first time I met Chad. He was like an 8th grader looking as strong as Lex Luger from the WWE. He would have had awesome results had he been given the luxury of having experience. He was talented. But he’s also one of the legitimately nicest guys in the world.  He is a genius with computers, programming, application creation, etc. Chad probably could have been right on the verge of creating a groundbreaking, million dollar phone or computer app and Cindy could come into the room and purposely break his computer… Chad is so nice that he would probably find a way to make light of it and smile.  Same thing with Cathy.  I don’t think she has a mean bone in her body.  She wrestled a bit herself, but was only able to do it for a year or two. Christopher… I’ve seen him in a bad mood or two..usually due to cutting weight. He didn’t seem to care much for that. But like the rest of the family, is incredibly nice and polite.  One of the best to go through the state in that era, too.  He placed 3rd at state twice, but I want to say that he won Tulsa Nationals twice and won Reno Worlds 1-2 times as well. He was huge on the international scene.  Peaked in March. But I doubt he spent much time beating up on his little sister.  So she presumably didn’t get her toughness that way. 

I’m making things too complicated. It’s pretty easy, really.  The Johnson’s are extremely competitive, dedicated and hard-working people in all facets of life. If they get into something, they are all in. No half-measures. They will be dead-set on ensuring that things are done correctly and with tons of effort all while being the best “teammates” someone could ask for.  The Johnson’s were so valuable to the local wrestling club. Hell, if it weren’t for the Johnson family, West Burlington wouldn’t have had wrestling. They supplied the club with a bus, they filmed EVERYONE’s matches, they assisted kids from unfortunate financial circumstances with the adequate apparel/gear they needed to compete Really, you can’t ask for better people.  They are all athletically gifted as well, on both sides, IMO. Cindy’s mother, Debbie, was a Mutchler…and the Mutchler’s that I have known all had this crazy, natural strength.  Cindy’s father, John Johnson is also very strong.  I believe he was a national champion arm-wrestler.  So yeah, I guess Cindy was well-inclined to dominate. It was just always so interesting to me that the world’s happiest and most tight-knit family were such ferocious competitors when it was time to roll.

A lot of female wrestlers today have Cindy to thank for getting the ball to start rolling in Girls Wrestling, which gave them the opportunity to keep it rolling.  Cindy made a lot of people rethink the “girls can’t wrestle” mindset that some people tend to have.  I would have loved it if she had more of a chance to compete against other girls. When she did compete against other girls at National Tournaments, it almost seemed like a waste of time for her for she dominated them so badly.  She never lost to another girl.


Also, a TON of content for this website was made possible because of the Johnson family.  A lot of the state finals videos I have posted have been from their collection. Can’t thank all of them enough.  Honored to write this one!




Who or what encouraged you to give wrestling a try?

I was always going to my brothers’ wrestling practices after I got out of dance class. My mother would bring me back to the wrestling practice where I would just get on the wrestling mat with my brother and start practice wrestling moves. My brother Christopher Johnson- My family, they encouraged me to give wrestling a try.


Do you have any family who wrestled or wrestles currently? Parents, children, brothers, etc.? How did they do?

My oldest Brother Chad Johnson wrestled. My Sister Catherine Hansen did as well. My brother Christopher Johnson wrestled and placed 3rd twice and was a multi-national champ. My Dad, John Johnson did some Seniors stuff.


What were your youth results?

I started wresting in second grade after my dad and Mike Sayre got in to an argument about a girl wrestling. Jim Drain came to my dad and said that he had no problem with a girl wrestling, but he wanted my mom and dad to understand that I would not be treated any different since I was a girl and that I had to keep up with the guys. My parents informed me of this and said that I could join the wrestling team the next season, but if I wanted to join in on the practices that season, then I could do that. So I did.There were a few years that I did not end up wrestling even though I was still wresting in practice with my brother, but I did not go to tournaments


What were some of the most notable adverse challenges or moments you experienced in wrestling and how did it turn out?

Coach Sayre did not want me to wrestle, but he gave me a chance because he did not want to have to treat me any different than he would treat a guy, I told him that I did not want to be treated any different and that I would keep up everyone else in the room. Other wrestling coaches did not like the fact of a girl wrestler, wrestling with “the guys” I was constantly put down by other wrestling coaches from other schools. I was always looked at by wrestlers who did not know me, as a simple win for their record, but once they got on the mat with me, they quickly learned that I was not just a simple girl who would easily be taken down or beaten. Weighing in at 103 after losing 30 pounds with a waiver was another challenge.  I was blessed with teammates being supportive of me wrestling and sticking up for me through these adverse situations.


How would you describe your wrestling style?

I was a technician, always looking for openings to use move after move…I will never forget Jim Drain, ” INSIDE THE LEG,” “OFFYOUR KNEES,” ” HEAD UP,” “ARCH YOUR BACK,” “SQUEEEEEZE.” Also, Tiger- Lundvall, pointing to my forehead and saying you got this


Who was your most influential coach?

Every single coach that I had from 2nd Grade to my Sophmore Year: Mike Sayre, Jim Drain, Tiger Lundvall, Mark Swafford, Josh Keller, Josh Gunn, Ben Thomson.


What was the most upset you ever felt after a loss?

Not making it to state Freshman year.


Was your team competitive in HS/college?

With the small team that we had, we were competitive.


How does the emergence and current popularity of girls wrestling in Iowa make you feel? Wish that these strides would have been made a long time ago?

I can honestly say that I am proud for any girl who puts themselves on the wrestling mat, for wrestling teaches girls more than it teaches guys, in a way. Girls are not as well liked or accepted on the wresting mat… A lot of people have a difficult time accepting it for wrestling, to them will always be known as a “Guys Sport.” You learn a lot through those experiences and men don’t get the opportunity to experience those same situations on the mat.


Do you ever watch or read about some of the current girl wrestlers and size them up and/or wonder how you would do against them?

I can honestly say that there was a girl wrestling at Mt. Pleasant, that I wish I would have went up against, even though she was in a higher weight class. I just wanted to see how a match with her would go. I wrestled against other girls in national tournaments and I felt it was just way too easy wrestling against them.


Why has it taken this long for girls wrestling to gain the steam it needed to get to the level it’s at now?

Honestly, I don’t think that parents wanted to see girls lose weight, or get hurt because wrestling is a very challenging sport for anyone not only physically, but mentally. Parents are much more inclined to be overprotective of their daughters than they are sons.


Would you have wrestled in college if you had the chance?

I did have a chance to wrestle in New York for college, but I turned in down due to my injury and I did not want to have surgery.



There is a story, xthat you threw a historically good Iowa HS wrestler to his back in the first few seconds at districts… I will leave his name out so he doesn’t get upset in case he reads this. But is this true?

Yes, this is true, I have even brought it up to him and he will deny any part of that happening. I have a picture of the moment it happened.  He ended up pinning me, though. I have been told that for me putting him on his back, he had consequences.


Do you have any favorite girls wrestlers that you have followed?

I honestly don’t have any favorite girl wrestlers currently, but I can say that any girl that puts themselves on the mat with the courage and mind set of putting themselves through a tough sport and tries and does not give up has my vote and I encourage them to push themselves even more.


Who was your most influential wrestler that you looked up to growing up?

My brother- Christopher Johnson


Who are your favorite current wrestlers?

Brennan Swafford is my favorite.



If you could go back and change one thing about your wrestling career, what would it be?

Getting injured to the point of not being able to go back.



What was your best wrestling memory/accomplishment?

Having a good record and making it to districts at a stacked weight.


Who were some of your most notable competitors in high school? College?

The legend who shall go unnamed, Knipfer, Caleb Martin (RIP).


Did you wrestle after high school?

No 😞


What other sports did you play?

Football, Softball, track


What are your favorite sports teams?

Honestly, I don’t have any.


What are your hobbies?

Being outside, refurbishing wood furniture, crocheting, coloring, painting, making signs, being a social worker and helping families in need.


How has wrestling shaped you as a person to this day?

Wrestling has helped me to be the person I am today in every way not only physical strength, but mentally it has helped me as well. I am able to overcome obstacles that I wouldn’t have been able to had I not wrestled.


What do you do now?

I am a social worker with Young House Family Services where I work with Children/Teens and their families whom have behavior problems and mental health issues.


Are you still involved with wrestling?

No, but I wish that I was.


Any chance we see you wrestle again at an Old Timer’s tournament?

I wish, but I do not think that will be possible at this point.


Would you like to give a shout out to anyone you wrestled with, against, coached, etc.?

My Family. My teammates; Sam Newkirk, Dustin Gieselman, etc. and all of my coaches.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Ken Crews March 30, 2020, 4:14 am

    She was great to watch 🙂 Know the family and certainly miss stopping at car lot and talking with her Mother Debbie 🙁

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