By Cassie Krisher
The atmosphere is buzzing with electricity as the opponents take to the wrestling mat. During the match, they grab each other’s legs, ride each other’s backs and pin each other on the mat. Both opponents are in the same weight class, but that does not necessarily mean their strength is equal. One of the opponents is a girl.
Although girls who participate in high school wrestling often have amazing physical strength, it is possibly their mentality that is strongest as they approach the mat to wrestle in a male-dominated sport. While women’s wrestling has been gaining acceptance worldwide — it made its first appearance in the 2004 Summer Olympics — girls wrestling in high school has not been equally accepted. Only three states recognize separate state championships for girls wrestling, and a few more have combined participation at their state meets.
Since the 1996-97 school year, the number of girls participating in wrestling has more than tripled, according to the NFHS High School Athletics Participation Survey. Growth in girls wrestling has been steadily increasing since girls first participated in the sport in 1979-80.
Last year, more than 5,000 girls participated in wrestling, according to the 2006-07 participation survey. While this number accounts for only two out of every 100 high school wrestlers in the country, it is a number that requires some insight into the issues that both girls and boys face when it comes to girls’ participation in wrestling.
When girls wrestle on boys teams, it creates conflict for both genders. With co-ed competition, girls have no choice but to wrestle stronger boys, and boys can feel pressure to forfeit a match with a girl.
Should high school girls wrestle on boys teams and against boys in competition, or should schools and state associations establish separate girls wrestling teams and competitions?
Separating boys and girls in wrestling
Texas, Hawaii and Washington have established girls wrestling state championships separate from the boys championships. Girls in Texas account for more than one-fifth of the nation’s high school girls wrestlers, with 1,460 girls participating in 191 schools. Hawaii has 456 girls wrestling, and Washington has 490 girls wrestling in 141 schools.
Separate boys and girls divisions in wrestling have existed in Texas since the University Interscholastic League (UIL) took official control of the high school sport in the 1998-99 season. Girls compete against other girls during the regular season and have their own state meet every February. Girls’ participation in the sport has been consistently increasing.
“Everything that we’ve heard has been positive,” said Mark Cousins, UIL athletic coordinator. “We haven’t received any negative feedback in reference to our program at all.”
Although the high school community has received girls wrestling well in Texas, the same may not be true in all states.
“It’s worked well for us, but each state has to take into account its schools and systems,” Cousins said. “What works for us may not work for others.”
Similar to Texas, Hawaii also splits boys and girls wrestling into two separate sports throughout regular-season play and the state series. Hawaii created a separate girls wrestling state championship in 1998 because of the increasing popularity of the sport, said Keith Amemiya, executive director of the Hawaii High School Athletic Association (HHSAA). Approximately 220 girls wrestle in 11 weight classes at the state meet, compared to 280 boys in 14 weight classes.
“Creating a separate girls wrestling state championship has been one of the most successful accomplishments of the HHSAA in the past decade,” Amemiya said. “It has helped the HHSAA in terms of gender equity and has provided many of our girls with opportunities to obtain college scholarships, train at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado, and even attempt to qualify for the U.S. Olympic women’s wrestling team.”
Washington started an official girls state wrestling championship last year. However, instead of completely separating the genders, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) came to a compromise. Regular-season wrestling can be co-ed, but girls and boys wrestle in separate state series.
Five years ago, the WIAA started an invitational for girls as part of the state meet, and 56 girls participated, wrestling against other girls. The following year in 2005, 109 participated, and 156 participated in 2006. Then, the WIAA Executive Board established the first girls wrestling state championship for the 2006-07 season, reasoning that girls’ participation in the sport would expand if they had their own state tournament. Seventy-two girls participated in the first girls wrestling state tournament last year. This year, the field was expanded to 108 participants in nine weight classes. Next year, the WIAA will add two more weight classes for girls, expanding the field once again.
“[Completely separating girls and boys wrestling] is our ultimate goal, but it is a balancing act,” said Jim Meyerhoff, WIAA assistant executive director. “If you cut off the regular-season participation against boys too soon, then you will restrict the growth of girls wrestling.”
Washington does not yet have enough participation in girls wrestling to account for creating a separate girls division during the regular season, even though half of the WIAA schools with wrestling have female wrestlers. Only six states – California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Texas and Washington – reported more than 200 female high school wrestlers in the 2006-07 NFHS High School Athletics Participation Survey. Some schools have only one or two girls wrestling, and the only way for them to participate in the sport is to wrestle boys. A sudden move to separated girls wrestling would discourage growth of the sport, Meyerhoff said.
“As a model, it’s been very successful,” Meyerhoff said. “Girls wrestling has brought more excitement and enthusiasm to high school wrestling in Washington. There are always a few parents and coaches who wish it would go away, but we are way past that point now.”
Co-ed wrestling in high school
In 2006, Michaela Hutchison of Soldotna (Alaska) Skyview High School won a state title in the 103-pound weight class of the co-ed Alaska School Activities Association (ASAA) state wrestling championship, according to the Associated Press and the March 2006 issue of NFHS News. She defeated many boys in a male-dominated sport to become the first girl to win a high school state wrestling title in a co-ed competition.
While in charge of wrestling at the Nebraska School Activities Association, Bob Colgate, NFHS assistant director and liaison to the NFHS Wrestling Rules Committee, said that he received complaints from parents about a girl who qualified for the wrestling state championship. Parents would call him and say how despicable it was to see a girl wrestle against boys at the state meet, but Colgate responded that the courts have ruled that the state must allow girls to compete if no competition exists exclusively for girls.
“We treated her like one of the 896 participants, other than giving her a separate weigh-in and locker room,” Colgate said. “But win or lose, the audience gave her a standing ovation and there were 14 cameras going off around her mat.”
Girls like these exhibit a large amount of courage to be successful in co-ed high school wrestling. Female wrestlers can feel left out in a sport that has traditionally excluded girls. However, the weight-class system in wrestling helps limit the physical inequalities when girls and boys face off in competition. Unlike football, ice hockey and basketball, sports in which girls have no choice but to compete against bigger, taller, stronger boys in co-ed competition, the weight-class system in wrestling helps to level the playing field in co-ed competition.
The boys who are matched with girls in competition can also face mental challenges. Boys can have the mindset that girls should not participate in the sport at all and that boys should not be put in a situation where they could possibly hurt a girl. The fear of embarrassment can pressure boys into forfeiting a match rather than competing against a girl. If a boy wins a match against a girl, he is too aggressive; but if he loses, he can be ridiculed.
However, that fear of embarrassment may be an issue only before a match, and not during.
“Once the whistle blows, that’s all gone, and you are just trying to beat that person,” said Dave Gannaway, chair of the NFHS Wrestling Rules Committee and assistant executive director at the Illinois High School Association.
The mental challenges for both boys and girls in wrestling are “not really an issue anymore,” Meyerhoff said. “It is just who is the best wrestler.”
Is girls wrestling acceptable?
The few state associations that have chosen to acknowledge girls wrestling in their state series have each taken different paths. No one model is going to work for every state at this point in the growth of girls wrestling. But as the number of participants continues to increase, state associations will have to “wrestle” with the idea of incorporating girls into the male-dominated contact sport.
“It’s a struggle and a challenge,” Colgate said. “Some say girls shouldn’t be there [at the state meet], and others are more progressive. It’s a touchy subject.”
While the level of girls’ participation in wrestling varies from state to state, one thing that is common among all the states is the public’s growing acceptance of a girl donning a singlet and headgear and marching with her head high on the way to the mat, regardless of the gender of her opponent.
Cassie Krisher is a spring semester intern in the NFHS Publications/Communications Department. She is a senior at Butler (Indiana) University, majoring in journalism and media arts.