Women's Wrestling

Why Shouldn’t All Girls Have the Opportunity to Benefit From Wrestling?

burkert, gillespie

photo of Jenna Burkert and Shannyn Gillespie courtesy of Shannyn Gillespie

This is a guest column from Shannyn Gillespie

As a former U.S. Olympic Education Center (Marquette, MI) women’s wrestling coach, the author’s charge was to ready & develop female wrestlers for the U.S. Olympic Training Center (Colorado Springs, CO), Jr. World Championships, & the World University Championships. This task was challenging largely because, at the time in 2005, there were only 2 sanctioned high school girls wrestling state championships to recruit from (most recruits were noticed at junior national championships). Fourteen years later, there are 6 sanctioned high school girls wrestling state championships…

To be certain, female wrestling worldwide and in the USA is slowly growing (around 17,000 US high school female participants) even though there are a low number of sanctioned high school girls wrestling state championships (6 as of 2019; 7 to add for 2020) or female only wrestling leagues (38+ college teams included in WCWA & NAIA). Despite this inequity, many females do wrestle and thrive in the sport. This article lists some of those successful female wrestlers who are also pioneers. These pioneers have added their perspective on how and why females deserve their own wrestling leagues plus girls-only wrestling state championships in the USA.

Before we dive into the below questions and some veteran female wrestlers opinions, here’s a timeline of the last 30 years of some female wrestling league firsts:

  • 1987 – Sr. World Championships
  • 1988 – Jr. World Champ. (U20)
  • 1988 – Cadet World Champ. (U17)
  • 1989 – US Sr. World Team Trials
  • 1993 – Varsity College Team; MN-Morris
  • 1998 – Sanctioned H.S. State Championships; HI
  • 2002 – US Jr. National Championships
  • 2004 – Olympic Games
  • 2004 – Women’s College Nationals
  • 2008 – WCWA National Championships
  • 2010 – Youth Olympic Games
  • 2019 – NAIA National Invitational

Answers from prominent women’s wrestlers about female wrestling leagues

Based on your experience & expertise, what is your reason/opinion why girls should have their own wrestling leagues and wrestling state tournaments?

Kelsey Campbell | Olympian | Sr. World Team | College National Champion

I can’t really compare it to my experience because that was my journey and a byproduct of the times. I think in any sport, the natural progression is/has been to have their own league. In any and every sport there has been major success in both ends when there are equally sanctioned events – but it takes time to develop depth and I think there’s a right way to do it. Some states have a women’s state tournament, but instead of taking the time to teach them freestyle, they’ve resorted to making it a ‘takedown’ tournament. The USA is already behind in freestyle/Greco, and this is not necessarily helping. So, yes, giving the women their own tournament/league is an obvious next step, but not because the coaches want to teach less or as thoroughly. It is a separate division and should be approached as such. I think one of the issues is that we are in such a hurry to establish women as their own athlete, while neglecting the teams behind the women’s team. Even now, as an Olympian and currently competing overseas, there is a MAJOR lack of professionalism and consideration towards the women vs. the men. We have our own success/tournament/coaches, but our organizations still manage to find ways to shortcut the women. It’s not as simple as divide and conquer. If we/you/me/they are to establish women’s leagues and tournaments, the MOST important thing is to understand and embrace the job that actually comes with it.

Alyssa Lampe | Sr. World Bronze Medalist | Pan American Champion | Jr. World Bronze Medalist

I have mixed feelings on the subject. I never would have been as good as I was if I hadn’t competed against guys. There just isn’t a big enough pool of high-level girls at the state level. I like the idea of female leagues and states because it brings more girls into the sport. They may be hesitant to wrestle guys and may feel better wrestling someone their caliber. In an ideal world, there would be female only leagues but allowing girls and boys to practice together; much like they do overseas. Sharon Jacobson | Sr. National Champion | World University 5th | MMA Fighter Just like softball, soccer, basketball, etc., girls/women have their own leagues because we are physiologically different than our male counterparts. Past the 112 lb weight class, females are not as competitive with males because males have typically reached puberty by that point; it truly is a safety issue. I don’t think we need to go as far as Texas in the separation of the training environments. Both males and females can benefit from training with and learning from one another. But competition is different in that it’s more intense and your opponent doesn’t have your best interest like a training partner would.

Carlene Sluberski | College National Champion | Jr. World Team

I think girls need to have their own wrestling leagues and state tournaments established in order to grow the sport. It’s a safety issue for one. Girls are wrestling boys where it may not be such a big deal at the youth level, but once puberty hits, girls naturally have a higher percentage of body fat (that is healthy) where boys put on more muscle. So even if you just break down body composition, girls are at a disadvantage. I think it’s important for girls to have a place/group where they belong and have support. Being one of the only girls on the team is difficult, but if we establish leagues and female only championships, we give them a place or event they fit into. They’ll feel more valued and important. It will provide them with purpose and intent instead of constantly running into reasons they shouldn’t be there. (Not that this is always the case, but it has been in the past where coaches do not want girls in the room). Positive group support = retention = growing the sport There are still many girls that do not understand the opportunities with wrestling right now. Especially in states that do not sanction women’s wrestling, you’ll find many of these wrestlers have no plans of continuing wrestling past high school. I think this is just because they don’t know what else is out there for them.

Dany DeAnda | Jr. World Silver Medalist | Jr. World Bronze Medalist

I think there are a lot of girls at the grassroots level that we lose once they enter into middle and high school because they have to wrestle the boys. Once girls divisions are opened at the HS level, the state will experience a growth of female wrestlers willing to continue/start wrestling. There are so many amazing attributes wrestling has to offer. I think it’s so important to provide girls with this same opportunity the boys have while wrestling against other girls who are similar in physical strength and ability.

Jenna Burkert | Sr. World Team | Jr. World Team | Youth Olympic Team

I think girls should be able to wrestle girls for the obvious reasons of leveling the playing field. It’s extremely difficult for a female to remain competitive with their male competitors. It’s the fastest growing sport in the world, and we (female wrestlers) aren’t going anywhere. I always hear about girls that really want to wrestle, but the idea of going against a boy is intimidating. Wrestling is a sport that instills determination and work ethic from the start and it helps build confidence. It would be a shame if young girls missed out on that opportunity for growth just because it’s a sport that doesn’t have a girls team. I think by having a women’s wrestling league/state tournaments, you would see the sport grow in a tremendous way.

Erin Clodgo | Sr. World Team | Jr. World Team

I think girls should have their own sanctioned tournaments because of the strength difference with boys/girls and because of the risk of injury due to the strength difference. You want sports to be competitive, interesting, & exciting – you don’t wanna watch someone get manhandled, injured, or belittled. It is good to mix it up every now and then and wrestle with boys, but your main competitions really should be against people with the same hormone levels as you.

Patricia Hill | U.S. Olympic Education Center Team

So, I may differ from other female wrestlers and coaches (I’m not sure) in saying that I really enjoyed wrestling and competing against boys in high school. I think growing women’s wrestling is great and I encourage it, but I really liked that girls were the minority in the sport. Competing against boys and their strength I felt helped me build better technique because I could not beat the boys with power which I thought helped me in the long haul because my technique had to be better. That being said, when I did compete against elite women I noticed that I was not ready for their hip strength! And I will also say that it is so crucial for girls to start out with other girls because it will give them confidence (which is so important in any sport but more so in wrestling because it’s such a mental sport). Starting with someone on your level helps give you the bump of confidence you need to keep trying harder. My only comment that I feel will not be popular is that I liked being on an all-male team and I chose it because I did not like how “catty” (for lack of a better word) women/girls can be towards one another. I didn’t like high school sports because the other girls seemed to exclude me so easily whereas the boy’s team was fine with me trying “their sport.” Even in college, it was difficult because women were quick to tease about weight and skill and to alienate certain girls. Not to say that happens everywhere but that was my personal experience. I think that times have hopefully changed that women are now more supportive of one another.

Erin Golston | Jr. World Silver Medalist | Jr. World Bronze Medalist

I strongly believe women should have the opportunity to wrestle one another at state tournaments and leagues. Wrestling boys has its benefits; however, the earlier you wrestle women, the better. Women’s wrestling is becoming more popular amongst colleges so allowing women sanctioned tournaments would be able to help prep the girls for their college and Olympic aspirations.

Final thoughts

All of the ladies words are powerful and really touch on several barriers to advancement commonly known as “glass ceiling” topics, i.e. professionalism, opportunity, fairness & equity. The above pioneers actually suggest that not only do females deserve their own leagues, but they also deserve the same amount of planning, work, organization, attention to detail, etc. In other words, simply having female leagues without actually making them equal to male leagues is a disservice to females here and abroad.

It is interesting that Kelsey Campbell is an Olympian because she likely has been a first-hand witness to the glass ceiling or the invisible barriers that female wrestlers are going through from the grassroots level, to the college level, to the highest level in her sport. For sure, most wrestlers start wrestling either on a club team or on a high school team. And, some of the missions behind the US educational system include equal opportunity education and learning how to do things (read, write, research, critically think) more effectively.

But, if US high schools continue to allow girls to wrestle with boys, how is this an equal opportunity education (Is it discrimination?) if one compares it to say high school female: track, swimming, volleyball, etc? Also, what are the US educational systems actually teaching female wrestlers when they are not allowing female only wrestling leagues or female only wrestling state tournaments? To be certain, the sport will grow (nationally, wrestling participation numbers have been on the decline for 4-5 years) when girls leagues like high school sanctioned state tournaments, the NCAA, & NJCAA are created and seen as equal participants in our great sport.

While doing research for this article, Jerry Miller of http://wrestlegirl.com shared this data that shows girls can wrestle too. What is clear, is that girls have more success in the lighter weight classes. This is likely true because most boys in the lighter weight classes are usually freshmen & sophomores who may not have completed puberty…

Girls that have placed at sanctioned high school boys wrestling state championships

Legend: Name | State | Weight class in lbs. | Place in state | Year of placement 🥇Denotes State Champion | * Denotes multiple state placewinner

Erica Dye | West Virginia | 103 | 3rd | 2000

Tela O’Donnell | Alaska | 103 | 6th | 2001

Melina Hutchison | Alaska | 103 | 3rd | 2001

Deanna Rix | Maine | 130 | 2nd | 2005

Amy Berridge | Michigan | 103 | 7th | 2004

*Joey Miller | Oklahoma | 103 -4th ‘05 | 116 -4th | 2008

Alyssa Lampe | Wisconsin | 103 | 2nd | 2006

🥇Michaela Hutchison | Alaska | 103 | 1st | 2006

Nicole Woody Maryland | 103 | 2nd | 2007?

*Helen Maroulis | Maryland | 6th ‘05 | 6th 2007

*Whitney Conder | Washington | 103 -6th ‘05 | 103 -7th 2006

*Candace Workman | Utah | 106 -6th 2007 | 106 -2nd 2008

*Brittany Taylor | Nebraska | 106 -2nd ’09 | 106 -5th 2008

CC Webber | Michigan | 103 | 4th | 2009

Carlene Sluberski | New York | 96 | 2nd | 2009

🥇Hope Steffensen | Alaska | 103 | 1st | 2010

Monica Hovermale | Maryland | 103 | 6th | 2010

🥇Rachel Hale | Vermont | 103 | 1st | 2011

Megan Black | Iowa | 106 | 8th | 2012

🥇Danielle Coughlin | Massachusetts | 106 |1st | 2013

Samantha Rebentisch | Connecticut | 106 | 6th | 2013

Cierra Foster | Idaho | 106 | 3rd | 2014

*🥇Destiny Nunez | Arkansas | 106 -1st ’15 | 106 -3rd ’14 | 106 -3rd 2016

Macey Kilty | Wisconsin | 106 | 2nd | 2017

Katlyn Pizzo | Michigan | 103 | 8th | 2017

Alexys Zepeda | Oregon | 113 | 3rd | 2018

Kasey Baynon | Georgia | 106 | 5th | 2018

Sage Mortimer | Utah | 106 | 4th | 2018

Reyna Rogers | Arkansas | 106 | 3rd | 2018

Emma Karhu | Wyoming | 106 | 5th | 2018

Heaven Fitch | North Carolina | 4th | 106 | 2019

Angel Rios | Colorado | 4th | 106 | 2019

Jaslynn Gallegos | Colorado | 5th | 106 | 2019

Reyna Rogers | Arkansas | 106 | 3rd | 2019

*Irelan Powell | Arkansas | 113 -4th ‘18 | 113 -3rd 2019

For more from Shannyn check out his facebook page: http://facebook.com/uswomenswrestling

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