Women’s wrestling continues to grow in this country and around the world. After the first women’s freestyle World Championships were held in 1987, the United States sent their first women’s team in 1989. Since then, women’s wrestling has become an Olympic event, we’ve seen the rise of the Women’s Collegiate Wrestling Association (WCWA), and the number of females wrestling is at an all-time high. Much of that growth is due to the work of pioneers who not only set an example for young girls to follow, but also fought for opportunities for future generations that they never had themselves. You’ll find some of those pioneers on our list of the five American women who have made the most world and Olympic team appearances all-time. From the first ever women’s world champion for Team USA to an active competitor trying to take the top spot alone, this list is filled with great wrestlers.
4) Sara McMann, 8
Unlike many on this list, once McMann found her place in the Team USA lineup, she wouldn’t let it go. After she represented the country at the Junior World Championships in 1999, she pulled double duty, wrestling both Juniors and Seniors in 2000. McMann would wrestle at either the World Championships or the Olympics every year from then on, making her final team in 2007. After three finishes well outside the medals, the Marion, North Carolina native made the leap to be one of the best in the world, making her way to the world finals in 2003 and the Olympics in 2004. Bronze medals in 2005 and 2007 fleshed out her outstanding career. In 2009 she finally won a world championship, though it was in no gi grappling. From there McMann became one of the first women to fight in the UFC facing such recognizable names as Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate. She remains an active fighter, having won her most recent bout in February.
4) Stephanie Murata, 8
It can be hard to let go when you still have the fire. It might be even harder when you’re still world class. Murata didn’t make her World Championship debut until she was a few months shy of her 26th birthday in 1996. That didn’t stop her from having a long career, however. After four straight world teams and back-to-back fourth place finishes, Murata missed the 2000 World Championships altogether. She immediately rebounded to take the silver medal in 2001. It would be her only world-level medal despite not making her last team until 2007 when she was 36. Murata didn’t exactly retire there, either, winning a silver medal at the World No Gi Grappling Championships in 2009.
3) Tricia Saunders, 9
Though she never lost to an American during her Senior level career, Saunders wasn’t immediately dominant at the world level. Part of that may have been that she took 10 years off after she quit wrestling boys at the age of 12 before returning to the sport. She made two teams, in 1990 and 91, without winning a medal before breaking through to win a world title in 1992, the first ever by an American woman. After a runner-up finish in 1993, she did not compete in 1994, then finished fourth in 1995. She wouldn’t lose again at the World Championships until 2001. During that span, Saunders would win three world titles, claiming gold medals in 1996, 1998, and 1999. The 1999 victory was particularly sweet as she knocked off China’s Xiue Zhong, the woman who beat Saunders in the 1993 World Championship finals. Her last World Championships, in 2001, did not go according to plan, but her four women’s freestyle world titles is still an American record. It is interesting to note that Saunders, who spent her career between 46 and 50 kg trained with Tim Vanni, who made nine world and Olympic teams at 48 kg on the men’s side, at Sunkist Kids.
1) Elena Pirozhkova, 10
One of nine children, the Siberian-born Pirozhkova lost in the semi-finals at the 2008 Olympic Trials challenge tournament at 63 kg. Four months later, she would make her first World Championship appearance, in both 2008 and 2012 women’s wrestling had a World Championship in addition to the Olympics, wrestling 67 kg and finishing eighth in Tokyo. That began in incredible streak for Pirozhkova during which she would make every world or Olympic team, including both in 2012, through the Rio Olympics last year. Her loss to Tamyra Mensah in the final series of the 2017 World Team Trials ended that streak after 10 straight teams. While she has bounced between 63 kg and 69 kg in recent years, all of Pirozhkova’s medals came at the lower weight. After winning a silver medal in 2010, finishing fifth in 2011, and struggling in the 2012 Olympics, the woman who graduated from Greenfield High School in Massachusets earned her only world gold at the 2012 World Championships. She would complete her set of medals with a bronze in 2013 and add a second silver in 2014. After falling in the bronze medal match in Rio, Elena went back up to 69 kg this year. She didn’t leave her shoes on the mat in Vegas so expect her to be gunning for her record breaking 11th team in 2018.
1) Kristie Davis (Marano), 10
Davis holds the American records for most world teams, most medals, and most finals appearances in women’s freestyle after a sparkling career that began when she was just 17. She had a pair of silver medals at the Senior level before she won a Junior World Championship in 1998. Davis would go on to earn another Senior silver that year and push her streak to four in a row the next year, losing to Japan’s Kyoko Hamaguchi in every final from 1997-99. After being so close at 75 kg, Davis dropped to 68 kg in 2000 and finally won a world championship. Instead of settling in for a long reign at the new weight, Davis was knocked off the team in 2001 by Toccara Montgomery who would proceed to win a world silver of her own that year. That wouldn’t keep Davis down long as she returned to win bronze in 2002. The Albany, New York native made the most of an opportunity of a lifetime in 2003, wrestling in her home state and winning her second world title in front of family and friends.
With two more world medals and three more teams (06, 07, 10) after that, Davis resume is amazing. However, she never made an Olympic team. In 2004, there were just four weights for women’s freestyle and Davis’ attempt to make 63 kg did not go well. After getting within a pound or two in her attempt before her body shut down, she moved up to the next weight, 72 kg, and fell to Montgomery once again. In 2008, at 72 kg, Katie Downing knocked off Davis in the challenge tournament before falling to Ali Bernard. Davis would even come out of retirement to try one last time to make the Olympic team in 2016 but fell short. Regardless, Davis stands alone as the most decorated American women’s freestyle wrestler of all-time. She is a legend and well deserving of sitting atop this list.