Rotterdam native Michaela Simmons, AKA pro wrestler Kayla Sparks, shares comeback story

Rotterdam native Michaela Simmons, who wrestles as Kayla Sparks, right, poses with her mom, Susan Simmons. (Photo provided)

Rotterdam native Michaela Simmons, who wrestles as Kayla Sparks, right, poses with her mom, Susan Simmons. (Photo provided)

Michaela Simmons was cruising east toward Worcester on the Massachusetts Turnpike on July 18, 2021, when it happened. 

Another car came out of nowhere and hit her, sending Simmons and her car into the shoulder, just missing the guardrail. It was the first — and, to this date, only — car accident the Rotterdam native’s ever been in.

As her life flashed before her eyes, Simmons said, she had one thought echoing through her mind.

“Please, Lord, get me through this so I can get to my wrestling match.”

That night was set to be a special one for Simmons, the first time in more than a decade that she’d transform into her pro wrestling alter ego, “The Spice Ranger” Kayla Sparks, and perform in front of a live audience.

Simmons had started in pro wrestling at the same time she was starting to attend Schalmont High School in the early 2000s. But a pair of concussions eventually forced her into a premature retirement from the ring in 2008.

She spent the next decade-plus moving on with her life, starting a career in the state Attorney General’s Office, but when she reached a crossroads in her life in 2020, it became clear to her that a return to wrestling — while maintaining her full-time job — would make her happiest.

And here she was, at the side of the highway, wondering how she’d survived.

“My grandpa had recently passed away, and my aunt Heidi. I was close with both of them,” Simmons said. “I really think they were my guardian angels, making sure I was safe and didn’t die that night.”

After being helped out by a friendly state trooper — a wrestling fan, she said, who asked for her autograph on the back of the accident report “just in case you ever get famous one day,” — Simmons made it to Worcester, and Kayla Sparks made her return.

The car was totaled, but a new road was just beginning. One that would lead her down wilder paths than she ever imagined.

ORIGIN STORY

Growing up in Rotterdam, Simmons, now 34, developed a love for professional wrestling at a young age. It never went away.

There are old home movies, she said, of her squealing with delight on her third birthday when she unwrapped a present of TV trays emblazoned with the images of World Wrestling Federation icons Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior.

She carried the passion throughout the wrestling boom of the 1990s. Her first live wrestling show, she recalled, was the famed moment in Albany when “Stone Cold” Steve Austin rode to the ring in a beer truck and hosed down his villainous opposition with a torrent of beer.

During that time, her list of heroes grew to include the face-painted Sting, the masked Rey Mysterio and the iconic Undertaker, her “all-time favorite.”

And then there was Chyna, who with her 6-foot-0 stature and bodybuilder’s physique was just as likely to go toe-to-toe with top male wrestlers as she was with women.

That resonated with a teenage Simmons, who did well in school but never quite felt comfortable among her peers.

“I would get made fun of,” she said, “because I dressed like a tomboy and wore a lot of wrestling shirts. I was really bullied at the time, and I went through depression and stuff as a teenager, but wrestling was always my outlet.”

A report that her mom, Susan Simmons, saw on the news allowed Michaela to find a place to channel that outlet.

A local pro wrestler, Chip Stetson — real name Frank Chiofalo of Duanesburg — was starting a program at his 24/7 Wrestling school in Schenectady to allow teenagers to get into wrestling training as an after-school alternative.

Michaela was all-in, immediately.

Mom? Not so much.

“I begged my mom,” Michaela said, “and my parents were really against it, because I was 13 and they didn’t want to see their daughter get hurt.”

Eventually, her parents relented.

“I was a little hesitant at first,” Susan Simmons said, “but I said, ‘Well, maybe that’d be good,’ just for the activity part of it and to get her involved, because she was on the shy side.”

Chiofalo admitted that he had his reservations if 13-year-old Michaela, who “never claimed to be someone that loves physical education, or said, ‘I’m a sporty type,’” could hold up to the physical rigors of pro wrestling.

While pro wrestling matches may be choreographed, and the outcomes predetermined, there’s still plenty of physical risk involved.

“Our bodies aren’t made to be thrown in the air and land flat on your back in the middle of a ring that’s on the stiffer side,” Chiofalo said. “It was shocking to me to see that she could actually handle it, take the punishment that came with it, and come back for even more.”

Adopted as something of a little sister by her fellow students, Michaela Simmons had her first pro wrestling match on Sept. 21, 2002.

For the next six years, she lived her dream. With mom in tow most of the way, Kayla Sparks became a two-time women’s champion for the World of Hurt Wrestling promotion as she traveled up and down the road, wrestling independent dates in New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut and Canada.

And then, one night, it ended.

A SUDDEN STOP

Simmons still has the photo. Her, in her wrestling gear, in the waiting area of a hospital emergency room.

It’s concrete proof of the day she was certain her wrestling career was over, the result of the second severe concussion.

“It was scary,” she said, “because it happened during the match and I blacked out. I didn’t know where I was, and when I went in the locker room I couldn’t stand up. The doctor that was there said, ‘Yeah, she definitely had a concussion. She needs to go to the ER.’”

Her mom, who made so many of those long-distance trips with her, was the one to take her to the hospital.

Chiofalo, her trainer, was heartbroken when he got the news.

“I try to protect a lot of my students as much as I can, and I wasn’t with her that night,” he said. “

Wrestling, the passion that pulled Simmons out of her naturally introverted shell, seemed to be gone in an instant, as did her dream of eventually signing with World Wrestling Entertainment.

“I’m like, ‘Well, now what do I do?’ Wrestling was my dream,” she said. “My goal was to be in WWE. I never thought about anything else. Now, I had to think about what I wanted to do with my career.”

At 23, Simmons took the state civil service exam and got the job as an information technology specialist in the Attorney General’s office she’s held ever since. She bought her first house, and was in a long-term relationship for eight years. 

There were plenty of hurdles, too. In her time away from wrestling, Simmons came out as gay to her parents, an ordeal that she said led to “a lot of depression.”

Then, in 2020, as she was planning her wedding, the relationship soured and things fell apart.

“I thought my life was over,” she said.

Unsure of what to do, Simmons said, her family encouraged her to find joy by doing what she loved.

That led her back to wrestling, as she’d remained a die-hard fan during her own absence from the ring.

And that comeback led her back to Chiofalo, her original trainer, who was by then in the process of showing his own son — who wrestles as Shane Stetson — the ropes.

In the ring that was set up in Chiofalo’s backyard in Duanesburg, the seeds of Kayla Sparks’ return were born.

“It takes a lot of effort and a lot of patience to be able to do wrestling,” Chiofalo said. “It reconnected us after so many years, and she felt way more comfortable having me involved than going somewhere she didn’t know.”

All that work brought Simmons to July 18, 2021, and that moment on the Mass Pike.

It’s been non-stop ever since.

THE COMEBACK’S BIGGER THAN THE SETBACK

Nearly every morning she’s woken up since her comeback, Simmons has had to pinch herself as she’s processed the wild ride of her return to wrestling.

“I’m like, ‘Is this my life? Is this really happening?’” she said.

Since returning to the ring, Simmons has pushed her career hard on social media, getting Kayla Sparks noticed far and wide.

Shortly after her return, she made her first trip to Texas, wrestling for a promotion operated by All Elite Wrestling star Thunder Rosa. A couple months after that, she was in the ring against Thunder Rosa in front of a sold-out Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing, wrestling in the first match of AEW’s Grand Slam event in front of a crowd of 20,000.

In the following year-plus, she’s made a handful of appearances for AEW, mostly in matches taped for YouTube, but a couple of times on national television.

One of those, back in February, allowed her to make a bit of modern pro wrestling history.

On a Wednesday night in Bridgeport, Connecticut, she taped a match against Serena Deeb that was set to air that Friday on AEW’s Rampage show on TNT. Then, she headed down to Hershey, Pennsylvania, on Friday for work as an extra on World Wrestling Entertainment’s Smackdown show, appearing live on FOX in a segment with the Los Lotharios tag team. 

She’s the first wrestler to appear on national television on AEW and WWE programming on the same night.

“It’s just been like, ‘Boom, boom,’ one thing after the other,” she said. “It’s been pretty surreal.”

Of course, mom’s still on pins and needles the whole time.

“I’m a nervous wreck that she’s going to get hurt,” Susan Simmons said. “But, it’s what she wants, so I just support her.”

She’s made multiple appearances as an extra for WWE in the last year, and eagle-eyed viewers might be able to spot her Saturday night at WWE’s Survivor Series card on Peacock, as she’ll be there if needed as an extra as well. 

In August, she wrestled her first WWE match, competing on television as part of a six-woman tag team match against three of the company’s biggest stars, Bianca Belair, Alexa Bliss and Asuka.

All the while, she’s been hitting the road for independent bookings that she’s balancing with a full-time job, and getting fans behind her across the country.

“For me, it’s not just about wrestling. It’s more about connecting with people,” she said. “Hopefully, your story inspires other people to know that they’re not alone and to be true to themselves.”

“She gives them something to believe in,” Chiofalo said. “Whether it’s real life stories, current events, she’s able to deliver a message to a lot of her fanbase and get them to latch onto it through real-life situations.”

As “The Spice Ranger” — a moniker she crafted from two of her biggest non-wrestling childhood loves, the Spice Girls and the Power Rangers — she sports the Pride rainbow colors on her wrestling gear and shares the story of her comeback from injury, her sexual identity and her perseverance amid her personal struggles with everyone she can find.

She’s been profiled by the Outsports website, and was recently named to the Pro Wrestling Illustrated Women’s 150 as one of the world’s top women’s wrestlers. She’s even gotten to meet a few idols, like Sting, whom she marveled at wrestling in the same ring as at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Eventually, she’s still hoping for that WWE contract. 

And whether that comes or not, it won’t be for lack of trying.

“I’m doing all the right things,” she said, “to get my name out there, get my face out there.”

Categories: News, News, Rotterdam, Schenectady County

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