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Women's Wrestling

Women’s Wrestling Pioneers: Kent Bailo and the USGWA

Photo courtesy of Shannyn Gillespie

Pictured are the 1998 US Girls Wrestling Association Champions 

99 – Alaina Berube, Escanaba, MI, 8

104 – Olivia Ocampo, Oxnard, CA, 12

109 – Danielle Bennett, Fulton, NY, 10

112 – Becky D’Ambrosia, Defiance, OH, 9

116 – Katrina Betts, Milan, MI 9

121 – Dena Glisan, Columbia, MD, 11

123 – Melissa Baldwin, Burton, MI, 12

126 – Karina Chin, San Mateo, CA, 12

129 – Sara McMann, Marion, NC, 12

132 – Brandy Beayon, Fair Haven, VT, 10

137 – Tonya Evinger, Odessa, MO, 10

144 – Lauwae Smith, Honolulu, HI, 12

154 – Katie Downing, Pendleton, IN, 12

155+ – Mary Jensen,  El Cajon, CA, 12

The author first met Kent Bailo in 2005 at his US Girls Wrestling Association Nationals, held at Lake Orion H.S., in Auburn Hills, MI.  This was 8 years after his first girls only wrestling state tournament.

Mr. Bailo started the USGWA to get more girls involved with our sport partially because of what he saw as a referee.  Kent was named Wrestling USA “Man-of-theYear” for 2004 for his work as a coach, referee, and women’s wrestling pioneer.

Some of Kent’s wrestling accolades include: high school coach, record of 251-65-2; referee, refereed at 12 Michigan High School State Wrestling Finals, 7 NCAA Division III National Championships; & creating opportunities for girl wrestlers across the USA as you will see.

Not only does Mr. Bailo have credentials in our great sport, he also holds a Master’s degree in Secondary School Administration from Eastern Michigan University AND 11 majors & minors in social studies, history, geography, physical education, psychology, sociology, economics, area studies of Africa, African-American studies, political science, & criminology. 

Kent has some interesting takes on folkstyle, freestyle, & the growth of wrestling in the USA.  Below, you will be able to briefly get inside his mind and discover how he was able to effectively transform the sport of wrestling.

Why did you start the US Girls Wrestling Association?

I saw a few girls here and there when I was reffing [refereeing] in the ‘90’s. Every girl I’d see wrestling (on a boys team), I’d ask, “Are there any other girls in this area wrestling?” 

And the answer was just about always the same, “they have two at some high school and one at some other high school and that’s about it”. 

But I reffed in such a wide area (75 mile radius around Metro Detroit), I saw at least 30 girls wrestling and they all thought they were the Lone Ranger – when in fact, there were a lot of girl wrestlers.  Also, I’d ask the managers & scorekeepers “why aren’t you wrestling?” 

Answer was nearly always, “I would, but not against boys”. 

So then, my businessman (save wrestling mind) mode kicked in. Why not get all these girls together so they could wrestle each other — then 100% of the winners would be girls.  Much easier to like a sport or any endeavor when your chances of success (winning) are greater. 

Then, I decided to mail a letter to all 480 schools in Michigan that had a wrestling team. One letter to each coach, each athletic director, & each principal so they’d know my intentions were legitimate.

What were some of the obstacles USGWA had to overcome?

Finding a building to host events…  No coach was ever interested unless he had a girl or daughter on his team. 

Finding refs [referees]…  My son Brent, my brother Sam, one other ref and myself reffed that first Michigan State Meet in 1997.  

I heard some guys worried about [inappropriately] touching the girls maybe to prevent illegal holds or injuries — but those things never happened…  After a couple of years and the USGWA Nationals that started in 1998, the touching issues were never a problem again. Heck, we even had female refs come to Michigan from Missouri & Illinois. 

Our first Michigan Girls Wrestling State Meet, in 1997, had 116 girls.  We allowed 7th & 8th graders to compete to get the numbers up. In the first girls Nationals, at Ann Arbor Pioneer High School, we had 272 girls from 35 states.

Why do you believe USGWA Nationals was a success?

The USGWA Nationals were a success because every girl in the country who had a coach — who cared — knew about it. 

Originally, I was going to mail to 10% of the high schools in each state.  Then I thought, “heck Ohio, Indiana, Illinois are all real close, then geez Pennsylvania might bring a lot”. 

Then, I decided the best thing to do was to mail to EVERY high school in the country that had a wrestling team. I got the coaching directory from every state from the Clell Wade Coaches Directory Company.  With the help of my wife, we entered every address in my computer, printed labels, folded 10,500 letters, stuffed envelopes, put on stamps, address labels, & mailed.

Why didn’t you work more closely with USA Wrestling?

I think the reason was/is because I wanted to make social change (and save all Wrestling) and they wanted to make money.

USA Wrestling waited 10 years before they decided to host a girls Nationals folkstyle tournament.  Their presumption was that they needed to hold only freestyle events for international competition, but, literally ALL girls were folkstylers first (learned in middle school and high school).

Bobo Umemoto in Oregon, Mike Betts in Michigan, Lee Allen in California, Anibal Nieves in Massachusetts, & others said it has to be freestyle. But, participation numbers (turnout) for freestyle events weren’t drawing big numbers.

The reason I couldn’t partner with USA Wrestling is because they are a non-profit and the USGWA was incorporated as a for profit LLC.

If I took any money from them, they would want to call the shots (weight classes, age group divisions, and several variations we made just to get kids live mat time). And, I didn’t think they’d make the correct decisions to make women’s wrestling grow.

Timing was extremely important.

I figured high school coaches would donate their time for a hard working girl who deserved a chance to wrestle other girls and to see if she could be successful on a level playing field. So, my Michigan Girls State was the first week after boys high school State — then USGWA Nationals the following week.

Any later and you’d lose those girls who were multi sport athletes and were on the softball team, track team, golf or tennis team. Their number 1 priority should be to their school team (as their coaches and teammates depend on them), not the sport of informal club wrestling.  So, to capture that audience was critical; so it didn’t interfere with other school activities or commitments.

Lastly, in 2003, the editor at Wrestling USA Magazine Lanny Bryant, said to me, “You (Kent Bailo) are the reason women’s wrestling is going to be in the Olympics”.

I asked why he felt that way, and basically, he said that the USA Wrestling didn’t really support or promote women’s wrestling, but after the success for five years prior by the USGWA, realized its growth potential and jumped on an urged FILA to get it going.

I don’t know how it happened, but I was very flattered by his opinion.

What is the difference you see between folkstyle & freestyle wrestling?

Well, the reason I started the USGWA as a folkstyle organization is because that’s the style that ALL high schools use in America and all colleges used at that time.

Girls are/were more comfortable with folkstyle and were more likely “to dip their toes in the water and give it a chance”.  A takedown is a takedown. But in the USA, likely 95% of wrestling fans (parents, grandparents, siblings, & classmates) are much, much more familiar with folkstyle rules. 

In order to make Girls Wrestling grow, Girls Wrestling needs more wrestlers (a larger talent pool) — and then USA wrestlers will start to get better. 

I remember girls getting college scholarships for women’s rowing who preferred wrestling, but there was no tuition assistance for wrestling so they chose their second favorite sport because getting and paying for an education was of utmost important.  

Why do you believe folkstyle wrestling should be the sport for female wrestlers?

I just think folkstyle should be the style for girls in high school because such a small percent actually wrestle in international competition and even fewer medal. I think we need to appeal to the masses rather than the elites. 

The best and international level participants will be discovered by USA Wrestling from high school and college rosters. 

One hundred girls who go to college and get a degree (when they likely would not have attended college) is more important than any medal at any level. Those girls will become businesswoman who will donate money and time to wrestling.  Those girls will become high school wrestling coaches & teachers. 

Being a good citizen & giving back, by a greater number of people, is much more important than international medals. 

But this is such a difficult thing to measure because…  

  • It’s easy to count medals. 
  • What’s BEST for the MOST? 

That’s why I think girls should wrestle the same style as boys in high school and college.  

Do you think learning freestyle at a younger age has contributed to the Russian men’s & Japanese women’s Olympic wrestling dominance?

The Russian men & Japanese women just don’t have the options our athletes do and I don’t think learning freestyle any earlier has much to do with their success.

Some of the biggest keys to success are having a thoroughbred body with great reflexes, balance, agility, flexibility, & reaction speed. Some of those characteristics are teachable, much of them are natural. 

I used to tell people I could take the best athlete in any school and make him a winning high school wrestler within TWO weeks. 

All you need is a double leg takedown, stand up for an escape, & a half Nelson. The best athlete in the school is already strong, aggressive — plus — has good balance & agility.

How many athletes have those characteristics coming into the sport for the first time?

What will it take for Team USA to catch & surpass Russia & Japan in Olympic wrestling dominance?

That may never happen. 

Good athletes, in USA colleges, who have an option to play in the National Football League are not going to wrestle (even if they like it more than football)…  

Lets see, $10,000,000 a year or $50,000 a year, work some camps, do some speaking, maybe make $100,000 a year. 

This is a no brainer. 

Track guys who are fast enough to compete on the professional level or be a wide receiver or defensive back in the NFL, choose football for the money.  Track guys who are weight throwers (discus, hammer, shot put, or 35 lbs weight throw) choose the NFL for the money. 

Russia has professional hockey;  but their best guys come to the NHL to make money.

Japan has professional baseball so their best guys come to the USA to make money. 

It is not possible for American Amateur wrestling to financially compensate athletes like the NFL, MLB, NHL, & NBA do. 

There’s money to be made in golf & tennis, but I don’t think those sports take away wrestlers.

So, the best way to close the gap with the Russians & Japanese is to expand the talent pool. When every college that offers a men’s wrestling team AND when every high school that has a boys wrestling team gets a girls wrestling team — this gap with Russia & Japan will start to close.

What age do you believe youth wrestlers should start wrestling?

Young athletes should start wrestling around 8 to 10 years old. And, have coaches and parents who aren’t so driven that the kids don’t enjoy the sport… 

At the lower levels, it has to be FUN first: 

  1. No kid wants to be forced to do something they don’t want to do. 
  2. Every youth wrestling weekend should have other things than wrestling to make it fun.
  3. No kid wants a lecture on the way home!!

What factors do you believe will help wrestling participation numbers grow in the US?

Participation will grow based on:

  • Parent demand, 
  • Student demand  
  • College men/women demand 

Participation will also grow when high schools, colleges, & middle schools offer the sport they LOVE — WRESTLING for both males & females. 

Other ideas to help wrestling participation numbers grow:

  • Vote with your feet  
  • Go to school board meetings, visit the principal, visit the athletic director
  • See your local newspaper or blogger and get them to write articles about why your school or college doesn’t have wrestling 
  • Go to college wrestling meets once in awhile
  • Ref, coach, & help at meets
  • Develop a fun loving, non-hardass personality which serves everyone better 

Love yourself.  Love what you do.  Love that wrestling develops good people more than any other human activity.

If you could run USGWA again, what would you do differently?

If I could do USGWA all over again, the only thing I would have done differently is to hone my computer skills & social media skills. 

But like I always said, “I went into business to go out of business”. 

I only did what the high school administrators & college administrators should have done before me. 

Once that wrestling snowball started rolling down the hill — there was no one  stopping it. 

When I started the USGWA Nationals in 1998, there was one college in the country with women’s wrestling, and now there are approximately 60…

Since then, several new men’s college programs have been created & many reinstated.

Also, there were No states sanctioned girls wrestling state tournaments when we had our first Michigan Girls Wrestling State Championships.  Now, at least 18 states have a sanctioned girls wrestling state tournament — and all will within 10 years. 

For me, mission accomplished, for wrestling — there’s a ways to go yet, but it’s getting better.

Kent Bailo’s odds & ends

After mailing those 10,500 letters, I learned that the girls who were wrestling in the late ‘90’s were NOT in the schools with good wrestling programs.  Most girl wrestlers came from small schools where they were needed to fill a weight class or schools that didn’t have very good teams and everybody was valuable to fill all the weight classes — this was better than forfeiting the weight class. This was generally true for most girl wrestlers — but not always. 

Goodrich HS (MI) won our Div. 3 dual state meet with CC Weber & Kristi Gar either at 103 lbs. or 112 lbs.  CC placed 4th in individual boys state with a 51-4 record and Kristi qualified for state but didn’t place.

Did you ever hear of a men’s wrestling college coach, when his program was getting dropped, ask the Athletic Director, “Is this a Title IX issue?”  If so, could he have said, “If Title IX is the issue, and if you are determined to drop men’s wrestling, can I start a women’s wrestling program to help balance the Title IX issue?” 

I’m guessing you NEVER heard of this scenario…

Wrestling coaches and wrestling people in general are not good WIN/WIN people!! Somebody’s gotta win, somebody’s gotta lose!!

Seems like wrestling coaches have been mad at football coaches forever (since Title IX in 1972) because so much money went to football. Title IX implied that many non-revenue sports were eliminated to fund women’s sports.  

Men’s wrestling coaches should have focused their competitive urges towards the rowing crowd!! 

Collegiate women’s rowing coaches recruited athletes and taught them how to row!! Wrestling coaches couldn’t have done the same thing??? We have NO high school girls rowing programs in the state of Michigan — yet we have 8 collegiate women’s rowing teams. 

How is this possible? 

After Title IX, if a university had 10 men’s sports representing 150 full ride scholarships, they needed to offer 150 full ride scholarships for women. Since football gets 85 of those scholarships, and women have no equivalent sport, every university has more women’s athletic teams than men’s athletic teams.

I have two nieces who rowed in the Big 10. Both walked on to the women’s rowing team.  Amy Puidokas, a 4 year letter winner at Michigan, had never been in a rowing boat in her life and earned a rowing scholarship after her first year. Ditto for her sister, Kara Puidokas, a 2 year letter winner at Michigan State. 

Wrestling guys could have done the same thing, but the old guard thought wrestling was a “MAN’S SPORT”.

Opportunity lost…

Conclusion

Kent has done a lot for our sport and it seems as though some of his analyses are on point and worth debating.  For one, he says that women’s collegiate wrestling likely could have grown right after Title IX (1972) if men collegiate wrestling coaches would have embraced women’s wrestling.  

Can that even be disputed?

Another idea that is worth contemplating, is the notion that girls high school wrestling should be folkstyle to maximally grow the sport.  For years, the author believed otherwise… And now it seems — with the current or ongoing reluctance to give female wrestling an opportunity — he may be right.

Finally, the author believes and agrees it is a numbers game regarding overtaking Russia & Japan as the best wrestling nations.  This thought only comes after years of viewing USA male & female wrestling plus the efforts of USA Greco-Roman results. In other words, because we lack an effective before or after high school feeder system for Greco-Roman wrestling, it may be impossible for the USA to ever dominate that sport.

For freestyle (males and females), on the other hand, numbers appear to be the challenge for maximum results.  This means that the USA likely will have better results when the current number of high school and collegiate wrestling participation numbers increase regardless of the style (which is folkstyle) participated in high school.

In any event, Kent Bailo, you have greatly changed the world for the better with your inclusion of girls wrestling state tournaments & national tournaments which were lightyears ahead of this planets.

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