By Gary Abbott
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado – There is something that perhaps the general public does not yet know. Wrestling has been the one of the fastest growing sports for girls in high school for a number of years.
With today being National Girls and Women in Sports Day, USA Wrestling and the National Wrestling Hall of Fame are celebrating girls high school wrestling. Perhaps, the wrestling community can help us get out the word about why so many high school girls are now wrestling.
First things first. USA Wrestling and the National Wrestling Hall of Fame are asking high school girl wrestlers and high school girls wrestling teams to post photos and videos on social media today and throughout the week. Go ahead and use Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. and show the world what girls wrestling is all about, using these two hashtags:
So here are the facts. In 1990, there were 112 girls who participated in high school wrestling. For 27 straight years, girls high school wrestling has grown. In many of those years, the percentage of growth was 10% or more. In the 2016-17 high school year, there were 14,587 girls wrestling in high school. And it is well known that that number is too small, because some high school state associations still do not report how many girls they have.
In the early years, girls only had the opportunity to participate on the boys wrestling team at their high school. This was not an easy task. It took a great deal of courage to wrestle, not only because of the physical disadvantage, but also because it was not yet accepted by society for girls to train and compete against boys in a combat sport like wrestling. In spite of this, the number of girls competing in high school wrestling increased, year after year after year. They were the true trailblazers for girls high school wrestling.
In rare cases, super talented girls reached high achievements against boys. Among the first girls to make the state finals against the boys were Erica Dye of West Virginia, Deanna Rix of Maine and Alyssa Lampe of Wisconsin. The first girl to win a state wrestling title competing against boys was Michaela Hutchison of Skyview High School in Alaska, who was the 103-pound state champion in 2006. Only one other girl has won a state high school tournament competing with boys, Hope Steffenson of Kenai High School in Alaska in 2010. These are the rare exceptions, however, not the rule.
Over time, most people have agreed that girls should wrestle against girls in high school. It has become a mission of the leaders in wrestling to develop opportunities for girls to compete against girls at the high school level. As this happens, opportunities for girls to wrestle will skyrocket.
“We should not require young girls to test themselves against males in this sport in order to be a competitive wrestler or to be valued as a good wrestler. It is a tough and demanding sport as it is, and young girls deserve the right to compete with other tough female wrestlers. The longer we force girls to compete against boys, the more we prevent the growth of women’s wrestling,” said Katherine Shai, five-time Women’s National Team member and a board member of the non-profit Wrestle Like A Girl.
As of the 2017-18 season, there are six high school state associations which have officially sanctioned state high school championships for girls. The states with girls wrestling, with the year of their sanction, are Alaska (2014), California (2011), Hawaii (1998), Tennessee (2015), Texas (1999) and Washington (2007).
The first girls high school champion in the first girls state tournament in Hawaii was Clarissa Chun of Roosevelt High School at the 98 pound weight class. Chun went on to become a 2012 Olympic bronze medalist and a 2008 World champion in freestyle wrestling, and is currently an Assistant National Women’s Coach for USA Wrestling. What a great start for girls high school wrestling!!!
That first girls state tournament featured both the boys and girls divisions, and was truly memorable for Chun.
“It was exciting to be part of something ground breaking. I didn’t even know there was women’s wrestling until that year when I started. It was cool to be part of the boys and girls state tournament,” she said.
So far this year, Alaska already held its official girls high school state championships in December 2017. All of the other state high school tournaments are yet to be held. They are:
Feb. 14-15 – Hawaii State Championships, Honolulu, Hawaii
Feb. 15-17 – Tennessee State Championships, Franklin, Tenn.
Feb. 16-17 – Washington State Mat Classic, Tacoma, Wash.
Feb. 23-24 – CIF California State Championships, Visalia, Calif.
Feb. 23-24 – UIL Texas State Championships, Cypress, Texas
These are the official state championships for high school girls. However, in almost every other state, wrestling leaders have organized an “unofficial” girls high school state championships. Some are hosted by state associations, others by USA Wrestling state chapters and others by groups of high school coaches. These competitions are being held in more and more states, and the number of girls who compete in these state meets continue to grow every year.
So far this year, girls state tournaments have been held in Florida, Colorado, Maryland, New Jersey, Virginia and Indiana, with many others planned around the country within the next few weeks.
USA Wrestling has a Girls High School Development Committee, led by Joan Fulp of California and Andrea Yamamoto of Washington. This group has been working with state and local wrestling leaders to work within their high school state athletic associations, with a goal of getting official state competitions in wrestling for girls. The non-profit Wrestle Like A Girl has launched its #Campaign44 initiative, seeking to get official status in the 44 states which have not added girls wrestling championships.
Allen and Yamamoto produced an on-line “High School State Sanctioning Resources” site, which provides support materials for leaders to use while approaching state associations with proposals. The URL for this resource is:
USA Wrestling has also included girls high school state recognition as a key part of its official Diversity Plan as submitted to the U.S. Olympic Committee.
In some of these states, official recognition is expected very soon. In others, the process has begun and is gaining momentum. What is impressive is how the wrestling community is coming together behind this cause, and as the process toward state sanction continues, more and more girls are getting high-level opportunities at the high school level.
This past year, for the first time, a National Girls High School Rankings was developed by USA Wrestling, FloWrestling and the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum. Every three weeks during the season, and on a regular basis during the post-season in freestyle wrestling, the nation’s most talented high school girls are honored through this national ranking system.
What makes the growth of girls high school wrestling even more exciting is that it is also fueling the growth of college wrestling opportunities for women. Women’s college wrestling has also shown significant expansion in recent years, giving the high school girls in wrestling an opportunity to receive an education while pursuing their athletic careers at the next level.
The Women’s College Wrestling Association, the organization which oversees women’s college wrestling, holds its annual national championship this weekend at Oklahoma City University. This will be the 15th year of women’s college wrestling national events.
There will be as many as 35 teams entered in this year’s WCWA Nationals, with a record number of entries expected, with as many as 325 athletes participating. These teams come from all levels of college wrestling, including the NCAA, the NAIA and the NJCAA.
Eight colleges have already announced that they will add women’s wrestling for the 2018-19 season: Tiffin University (OH-NCAA Div. II), Southwestern College (KS-NAIA), York College (NE-NAIA), Lakeland University (WI-NCAA Div. II), Presbyterian College (SC-NCAA Div. I), Baker University (KS-NAIA), Schreiner University (TX-NCAA Div. III) and Gannon University (PA-NCAA Div. II). Presbyterian College, which added men’s and women’s wrestling at the same time, became the first NCAA Div. I program within the WCWA.
“We are excited for the opportunity to support a growing sport and provide an opportunity for women to continue to compete at the varsity collegiate level,” said Lisa Goddard McGuirk, Director of Athletics at Gannon University. “Gannon’s wrestling program has a history of excellence that continues today and under Don Henry’s leadership, that success and tradition of excellence will be experienced by our women’s wrestling student-athletes.”
As girls wrestling grows at all levels, youth, high school and college, there will be more opportunity for girls to compete in the sport and gain the personal individual benefits from this great sport.
Let’s not forget that women’s wrestling has been in the Olympic Games since the 2004 Athens Olympics and is growing also, increasing to six weight classes at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Helen Maroulis, who wrestled in high school in Maryland, became the first U.S. woman to win an Olympic gold medal in wrestling with her impressive gold-medal performance at 58 kg in Rio.
National Girls and Women in Sports Day provides us an opportunity to celebrate girls high school wrestling this year. However, it truly is a chance to celebrate opportunities for girls and women of all ages to participate and grow through the world’s oldest and greatest sport.