Photo Courtesy of FulpAllenWrestling.com
Katherine Shai, who wrestled most of her career under the name Katherine Fulp-Allen, is the treasurer and a board member of Wrestle Like A Girl, an organization dedicated to promoting female wrestling in the United States. Shai has twice been runner-up at the world team trials and made the U.S. National Team four times. She was third, losing only to Olympic gold medalist Helen Maroulis, at the 2016 Olympic Team Trials this spring. TOM caught up with Shai to talk about women’s wrestling, her experiences, and what the next steps are for the continued growth of female participation in this country.
TOM – Tell me about the Wrestle Like A Girl organization, how you got involved and what the organization is working on now.
KS – I was approached by our founder and Executive Director Sally Roberts to be on the Board. She is a 2x Bronze World Medalist, Olympic Alternate, and serves in the U.S. Army. She has created an organization, that was not present before, that has fulfilled needs in the female wrestling space. We have been approached by and are creating formidable relationships with organizations, businesses, and entities that will support the growth of girls and women’s wrestling in the U.S.
We are currently planning our 2017 year and will be putting on clinics throughout the US that will strategically be beneficial for females at large. We are developing at the state level and at strategic levels to afford all girls across the U.S. the opportunity to wrestle. It’s going to be big and exciting for the entire wrestling community!
TOM – What were some of the biggest challenges for you growing up as a female wrestler? What sort of impact did having a father who was a coach have on your experience?
KS – The biggest challenge was first and foremost the opportunity to wrestle. I luckily competed in California growing up and we had many coaches pushing for girls only competition. Even still, for my first tournament at age six, my sister and I were told by the tournament directors that girls were not allowed to wrestle. It’s safe to say that they did not have the foresight to see that women’s wrestling would be in the Olympics 6 years later.
Beyond that, I had some backlash from my high school team for choosing to only compete against girls, and not on the boy’s varsity team. This was a family decision that reflected the intense reactions my sister had years before when she was ranked top three in our section and was set to be the first girl to attend CIF boys state.
My father had amazing perspective. He never jumped too far ahead and he never looked to the past. If I wanted to try and make an Olympic team, that would be step by step. We didn’t need to talk about it because the path would reveal its self as I continued to work. He helped keep me focused on my current career; high school, college, and then each step towards Olympic Trials.
TOM – You also had your sister, Sara, to train with growing up. How beneficial was that?
KS – We certainly had our sibling rivalry. Being three years younger and always feeling like I was trying to catch up was a mental challenge I had to learn how to overcome. By the time I moved to the Olympic Training Center, we were teammates and each others’ biggest supporters. We learned how to train together and how to push each other towards our goals. It has made us closer than we could have ever imagined. Now as Sara has coached me and supported me for this last quad, she knows exactly what I need to hear and how to work with my personality and my needs on the mat. Her immense experience internationally, and being on the U.S. National Team for almost a decade is irreplaceable.
TOM – What are the biggest differences between the challenges you faced and what female wrestlers face now?
KS – Depending on where they are from, I don’t think the story has changed much since I was a young girl wrestling. California was an early adopter for girls wrestling, but you literally have to convince people in the exact same way we did when we started almost 20 years ago. Its unfortunate but true, and we are trying to bring positive strategies to the states that are getting closer to sanctioning girls wrestling in high school. I believe that those who were already open minded to women’s and girls wrestling have a stronger understanding and now consider themselves fans. Through the efforts of our National Team staff Terry Steiner, Emma Randall, and Erin Tomeo, girls have more opportunities to compete and train with other girls younger and on an international level, but otherwise, I hear the same conversations like we did when I was a child. We are still trying to fight for opportunities and exposure within the wrestling community.
TOM – Women’s wrestling is growing, but still very few (seven, with Kansas working on a proposal to be the eighth) states sponsor girl’s wrestling at the high school level. How important do you think it is, to the further growth of the sport, to have girl’s only competition?
KS – It is so so so important. I don’t know if I can stress this enough! Wrestling is already a tough sport, and we are creating a huge barrier to entry by leaving it a sport where a girl can only wrestle against boys. Parents and spectators are thrilled when they have a girl competitive and beating the boys, but once she loses to a girl, she can often become ashamed and leave our sport. That is 100% not okay. We would never tell a female swimmer or runner that she must compete against and beat the boys. It isn’t logical! Once a state approves girls wrestling as a sanctioned high school sport, the numbers boom. The proof is in the pudding! What about those parents and athletes who are uncomfortable for their boys to wrestle a girl? Even more of a reason to support the movement towards girls only competition! We have also had a trend of losing numbers yearly for our boy’s high school programs. We have to do whatever it takes to increase programs in our schools, for boys or girls. At some point, we must recognize that the efforts must be simultaneous.
TOM – At the college level, there are now 32 women’s programs, but none yet at a Division I institution. Do you think it’s important to gain women’s programs at high-profile wrestling schools like Iowa, Oklahoma State or Penn State or do you think it makes more sense to continue growing at smaller schools?
KS – The small school effort is an important one. It is crucial to finish the task and have emerging sport status for NAIA. Through that effort, through the support of big schools’ Regional Training Centers open for college women, and through the effort and partnership of Wrestle Like a Girl, I can promise you that heads are beginning to turn. Proposals, growth, and partnerships take time to develop. As soon as it’s possible to create a team at a large NCAA school, it will be due to all the little steps and all the amazing people who helped support it to that new level!
TOM – Helen Maroulis won the United States’ first Olympic gold in women’s wrestling at the 2016 Rio Olympics. What needs to be done to use that to grow the sport and have you seen an uptick in interest in wrestling from younger girls since that historic event?
KS – Now that we have reached a historic gold medal for women’s wrestling the U.S, we need to use this momentum to highlight our senior women and our national team from here on out. We have been historically limited to how much coverage we receive and how little we show the diversity of the women who compete for Team USA and their stories. Without that, we narrow the range of young girls who will look to our sport and find a woman they can relate to and emulate.
I have certainly seen an uptick in interest in women’s wrestling in general! I think we will have to wait and see the numbers for the 2016-2017 year to see how the performance at the Olympics affects our growth nationally.
TOM – How happy are you with the growth rate of the sport in the United States?
KS – It’s hard not to be happy about girls wrestling increasing by over 1,000 new participants every year for the last three years, but only seven states out of 50 hosting high school sanctioned state championships does not show the level of growth that is actually occurring and the growth that COULD occur with full support. Individuals and organizations resisting the growth of girls wrestling is definitely passé. Our efforts need to be inclusive for growing all of wrestling.
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If you’d like to follow my journey, my blog focused on advice for athletes, and other national team members, look us up!
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