The most highly regarded high school wrestler in Minnesota began her athletic life the way scores of other 6-year-old girls do: as a dancer.
It became quickly apparent that dance wasn't for Skylar Little Soldier. She wasn't enjoying herself, and neither were her family members.
Soon after, younger brother Taylon attended a beginner youth wrestling camp. Skylar went with.
"I loved it. I wanted to be involved right away," Skylar said. "I like the idea of having to work hard. And I didn't like that my little brother was going to have athletic success before me."
Her time as a dancer ended there. "That was OK with me," her father, Nathan Little Soldier, said with a laugh. "I didn't really like dance."
The change began a wrestling odyssey that has taken a blonde, blue-eyed Native American girl, a source of pride for the Three Affiliated Tribes of central North Dakota (the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara), through the epicenter of international women's wrestling in Japan to a historic meet at Xcel Energy Center to the Colorado spot where the U.S. raises Olympians and to Argentina to wrestle for her country.
A 16-year-old junior at Hastings High School, she's ranked No. 1 in Minnesota at 145 pounds and is No. 9 among the nation's girls wrestlers in the pound-for-pound rankings compiled by Flowrestling.org. That's ninth in the nation overall, regardless of weight class.
She puts her objective simply:
"I want to be in the Olympics some day."
The Games dream
For so many young athletes, the Olympics are the pinnacle of athletic achievement, a gleaming object so bright it casts a shadow over other worthy ambitions.
Often, the dream fades as lives move forward, but not for Little Soldier. As she has pushed ahead in the world of wrestling, the Olympics vision she carries has become clear to those around her.
"When she was 8 and she said that she wanted to be in the Olympics, we kind of rolled our eyes and told her it was a good dream," said her father, who has a wrestling background. "What percentage even goes on to college? Then she started winning tournaments. About two years ago, her goal became legitimate."
Little's Soldier's international experience goes back to seventh grade, when she traveled to Japan for a camp that opened her eyes to the commitment required for world wrestling success. "They're the best [female wrestlers] in the world," she said. "They go out and they work so hard and they just grind. It showed me how much I need to do."
Accomplishments have piled up:
Twice a 16-and-under champion at the USA Nationals, both times at 127 pounds.
Runner-up among junior girls at nationals last summer.
A spot on Team USA for the Pan Am Games in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
And the plum of which she's especially proud: The 132-pound championship at Minnesota's first girls high school state championships at Xcel Energy Center last March.
"That was awesome. The first girls state tournament ever, with the finals right alongside the boys," Little Soldier said. "I pointed up to my dad in the stands. He's got a big picture of it in his office."
"That was the coolest thing to witness," said Nathan, whose office is at the Flint Hills Resources Pine Bend Refinery in Rosemount. "The girls were right there with the boys and got just as much recognition."
A coach in the picture
Girls wrestling is growing more prominent but remains in its infancy. For Kevin Black, a former All-America wrestler at Wisconsin and the founder of the Victory School of Wrestling in his hometown of River Falls, Wis., it has provided a wide lane for teaching.
He no longer owns the wrestling school, but he still puts in significant time as a coach and mentor there. He's well-known for his work with girls wrestlers. Three of his girls wrestlers were Minnesota State High School League state champs in 2022: Forest Lake's Aspen Blasko (107 pounds), Stillwater's Audrey Rogotzke (120) and Little Soldier, his burgeoning superstar.
"I've known Skylar since she came here as a sixth-grader," Black said. "You could tell right away that she had what it took to be successful."
She has a strong support system with deep family roots, Black observed, and a vital role model in her father and his work ethic.
"And she's committed to doing the little things you need to do to be successful," Black said. "It's not just about hard work. All good wrestlers work hard. You see certain athletes who are willing to do the little things it takes, like getting to practice 20 minutes early to get focused and her mind right. A lot of wrestlers do that before matches. Skylar does it before every practice."
She works out before the sun rises every day.
"That was something that came from me," her father said. "I go to work at 4:30 in the morning. Sometimes they [Skylar and Taylon] needed a little push to get up. Skylar does it on her own now."
There's also the matter of her physical ability. She has just the right mix, Black said: "She's got good body awareness and flexibility. And she's very strong."
But intangibles, especially, set Little Soldier apart.
"I call it the 'sports gene,' " Black said. "It's an element that all the best wrestlers have that is unteachable. She just knows how to compete."
Advocate, role model
Little Soldier is proud to be Native American. That emotion is returned to her.
"She brings a lot of pride to her tribe," said her father, who grew up in central North Dakota. "They've supported her in quite a few of her ventures, both in the country and outside of it."
She makes four or five trips to the Fort Berthold Reservation each year, where she's treated like a returning hero.
"A lot of people ask me why I started wrestling because there aren't very many girls who wrestle," she said. "They don't get it, but they're proud of me representing the tribe. And a lot of girls and younger wrestlers look up to me."
Nathan puffs out his chest about hearing others speak in hushed tones when they see Skylar in person.
"We'll go to a tournament and people will point and say, 'That's Little Soldier.' It's kind of cool that they all want to meet her," he said.
Bigger and bigger
Little Soldier said she "was not one of those kids that was good right away," but her arc has risen steadily.
She spent more than a month at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs last fall. One of her chief rivals and the wrestler ahead of her in the national rankings at 127 pounds, Shelby Moore of Buckley, Wash., was her roommate. They've gone from intense rivals to close friends.
All the training added bulk — but no fat — to her frame.
"She was a lot bigger when she came home," her father said. "She looked so muscular, like she was 160 pounds."
Not quite. She's wrestling at 145 pounds now, and she is adapting from her high school wrestling method, folkstyle, to the freestyle wrestling used in international competition.
"It's hard to do both," Black said. "Folkstyle wrestling is more about controlling your opponent. Freestyle is a lot different. Points are scored in a different way. A lot of Americans have trouble making the transition."
Little Soldier is confident she can make that change and any others needed to meet her Olympic goal.
"I'm pretty humble, and I'm motivated to work hard," she said.
"I'll do whatever I have to do."
Want to know more about Skylar Little Soldier? Watch this film by Victoria Zeyen: