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The History behind Women's Wrestling

History of Women's Wrestling

"We Are Building It. They Are Coming."
By: Jonathan E. Mitchell, M.Ed.
Head Wrestling Coach, J.P. McCaskey High School
Coach, Girls'; Team PA

In 2003, women's athletics seem to be more prevalent than ever before. With the prominence of American women in the world of athletics (Including the highly publicized success of the United States women in international soccer, the continued growth of the WNBA, and the increase of opportunities for women in sports such as wrestling and ice hockey) women in sports are now more highly regarded than in any other time of our country's history. The purpose of this article is to examine the growth of women's wrestling, to inform Pennsylvania wrestling fans of available opportunities for the females in our state, and to create a rationale for increased support of these ventures.

Although the growth of women's wrestling is seen as a recent phenomenon, it can be traced as far back as the Spartan women, who were taught wrestling out of fear of the helot (slave) population. More recently, women's wrestling in the United States can be traced back to 1911. While aboard a ship, a woman by the name of Bertha Rapp challenged all comers to wrestling competition. Bertha pinned several larger men before her last match ended in a draw. Other women attaining accolades in wrestling include Tricia Saunders, who became the first American woman to win a gold medal in the Women's World Wrestling Championships (1992), and Teresa Gordon-Dick, who became the first female wrestler to win a national championship in a coed bracket. Teresa earned her honor while competing in the 100 pound weight class at the Kids National Greco-Roman Championships in 1997.

In 1989, USA Wrestling (USAW), the national governing body for the sport of amateur wrestling, forced by FILA, the international governing body of amateur wrestling, held the first Women's National Championships. The individual weight class champions then represented our country in the first Women's World Championships, in Martigny, Switzerland. Gary Abbott, of USA Wrestling, stated the organization's uncertain stance in a quote to Sports Illustrated, in which he stated, "For us (USAW) it could be a big membership base. But it could also make a mockery out of what the men do." FILA was not nearly as uncertain as USAW. Its support increased international participation from thirteen countries, in the 1989 inaugural world championships, to forty countries in the 1996 event.

Although, in 1989, USA Wrestling's stance on women's wrestling was not extremely committed, by 1994 USAW had adopted a strong position by starting a women's developmental program. With the addition of a women's developmental program, USAW also added a women's wrestling committee, which makes recommendations to USAW. In the summer of 2002, a residency program was started at the Olympic Training Center for elite senior level athletes. The creation of the women's residency program followed the appointment of Terry Steiner as USAW's first full-time National Women's Wrestling Coach, in May of 2002. These foundational structures have led to the continued increase of competitive and training opportunities for female wrestlers.

The commitment of USA Wrestling has also led to an increase in women's memberships and participation. Memberships grew from 760 in 1994 to 1,733 in 1996. During the period from 1994 to 1995, participation in the Senior Women's National Championships grew, from 66 to 120, respectively. In 1995 a series of competitions was added for Junior girls, sixteen years of age and older, while in 1996 a “Cadet” series was added for girls ages fourteen through sixteen. In the summer of 2002, USA Wrestling for the first time added a female division to the prestigious Jr. National Tournament, in Fargo, North Dakota. This event drew over 100 girls. Due to the support of USAW, the United States Womens program has become one of the strongest in the world, with the team winning a bronze medal in the 1996 World Championships and a gold medal at the 1999 World Championships.

As with the participation in USA Wrestling sanctioned events, female participation in interscholastic and collegiate wrestling programs has greatly increased over the last decade. However, many of the opportunities for girls to compete at the high school level continue to lie within boys' programs. The National Federation of State High School Athletic Associations reports that 124 girls competed on boys teams in 1990, which grew to 804 in 1995, with continued growth resulting in 2,361 girls competing on boys' teams in 1999. While opponents to girls wrestling boys fear that females stand a greater chance of injury than males when competing in combative sports, Dr. Paul G. Dyment states that there is absolutely no evidence that supports this theory. As in high school, there are some women competing on teams at the collegiate level, however, the University of Minnesota at Morris's 1995 addition of a varsity women's wrestling team set a precedent that several other colleges have followed, with yet others adding women's wrestling as a club sport.

Unfortunately, many of the females that compete with males do so under unfavorable conditions. These women are frequently ostracized, and experience little success. This, unlike the unfounded fear of injury, is a strong rationale against female participation on male teams. However, this does not provide rationale for the exclusion of females. The growth of girls' participation at the high school level, despite the unleveled playing field, dictates that there is considerable interest in, and justification for, the addition of girls' wrestling. Many states, including Pennsylvania, have successfully added state competitions for girls. Other states, such as Texas and Hawaii, have added girls wrestling as a varsity sport, sanctioned by their state athletic associations. In March of 2002, the fifth annual Girls High School Wrestling Championships, held in Lake Orion, MI, attracted more than 350 participants. Competitions such as the ones listed above, including the addition at the Jr. Nationals, demonstrate strong support for the addition of girls' wrestling at the high school level.

Pennsylvania has competed well in both the USGWA and USA Wrestling tournaments. In the summer of 2002, Team PA (assembled by the Pennsylvania Wrestling Federation) finished in sixth place at the inaugural USA Wrestling Jr. National Women's Freestyle Tournament, in spite of entering only seven athletes. Five of the seven athletes entered finished as All-Americans (top eight). Once again, Team PA had a strong showing at the 2003 Jr. National Tournament. Pennsylvania again had five All-Americans, but improved to a fourth place finish on the strength of two national champions (Jen Chu and Ashley Smetana). Additionally, in the spring of 2003, Pennsylvania was ranked third in the USGWA folkstyle rankings and completed the USGWA National Championship with two finalists and several All-Americans.

Pennsylvania is arguably the best wrestling state in the country. With the growth of women's wrestling, it only makes sense that our female athletes should also be the best. This will only occur when the coaches in our state begin to support women's wrestling by offering their time and expertise. This can be done by welcoming females onto boys' teams, by starting an all-female team, or just by passing along information regarding opportunities.

In providing rationale for the addition of women's wrestling at the collegiate level, T.J. Kerr, the Head Wrestling Coach at the University of California Bakersfield, states that colleges often serve as the training grounds for our male Olympic and World Team members. With the growth of the United States Women's wrestling program, and the addition of women's freestyle wrestling to the 2004 Olympic games (Yes guys, it is an Olympic sport it isn't going away), it is only equitable that we offer the same opportunities to females in the collegiate ranks.

The positive benefits of sports have long been known. These benefits are now understood to be true for women and men alike. While the addition of wrestling opportunities for women may, or may not, help to alleviate some of the issues around Title IX and the elimination of mens collegiate wrestling programs, more importantly, they foster the increased participation of women in sports. This was the original philosophy behind the passing of Title IX. With the continued fight against the misapplication of Title IX, the wrestling community now has the opportunity to gain public support by showing that we are not conservative chauvinists who oppose opportunities for women. Instead, we can act as advocates for the original intent, by creating opportunities within our sport for all athletes. What will be the decision?