The growth of womens' wrestling

Oct. 20, 2023, 12:54 p.m. | By Giorgia Toti | 7 months, 1 week ago

Womens’ wrestling has been growing rapidly since the 1990s and here's why

Jovanovic faces a male opponent at pre-season open mat. Photo courtesy of Maggie Megosh.

In high school athletics, there currently are 263,500 male wrestlers and only 50,000 female wrestlers though it may not seem like it, that is a huge improvement in the wrestling community. Womens’ wrestling in the United States started in 1972 – after the signing of Title IX legislation which states that no person is to be excluded, denied, or discriminated against in any education program or activity on the basis of sex – but few women competed in mens’ divisions. In fact, there were so few women in wrestling that they only started tracking the amount of women in the sport in 1990. Now, there are over 50,000 women in the U.S. competing in their own divisions. So how did womens’ wrestling become so popular so quickly?

Wrestling is recognized as the world's oldest competitive sport, with 15,000 year old cave drawings in France illustrating it. It was also popular in Ancient Greece, developed as a way to train soldiers in hand-to-hand combat. From its first day, wrestling was and still is an exceptionally male dominated sport, but that hasn’t stopped women from joining. Khutulun, a Mongol noblewoman, was one of the world’s first female wrestlers. The story goes that her father wanted her to get married, so she made an agreement. She would get married if the suitor could beat her in a wrestling match, and if he lost, he would give her one hundred horses. In the end, she was husbandless and the owner of 10,000 horses. 

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, womens’ wrestling made leaps on the global level. Women were winning gold in multiple competitions and officiating games. In 1988, Sheila Wager became the first U.S female referee at the Olympics. The next year, Afsoon Roshanzamir won the first bronze world medal for USA Wrestling and Asia de Weese and Leia Kawaii won two silver medals. This was the first year that the U.S had entered a team in the Women's World Championship. In 1992, Tricia Saunders was the first U.S woman wrestler to claim a Senior World Title winning Gold at the Women’s World Championships in France. She also went on to become the first woman inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame as a Distinguished Member in 2006. This pattern of women becoming more prominent in the wrestling world has continued until this very day. 

The Opponent 

Despite all of this improvement and attention for womens’ wrestling, there is still a stigma that they face. Blair wrestling captain senior Mckinley Jovanovic acknowledges this obstacle for womens' wrestling. “There's always going to be people who are not… pro-women wrestling, or they're just, like, uncomfortable by it,” she says. 

She describes an unhealthy thought that is really common among those in and outside of the community. “It's the perception of like, if guys lose, then they lost to a woman. But if they win, then they just beat a girl,” Jovanovic says. This idea diminishes a woman’s accomplishments and efforts and can be discouraging for women in the sport. Jovanovic believes that to make womens’ wrestling an inclusive and welcoming sport, society needs to break away from misogyny in sports. "So it's like something that we have to kind of break as a society,” she says.

With this being said, the wrestling environment has come a long way and most women wrestlers feel comfortable in the community. Dr. Jackie Paquette, Deputy Director and Manager of Girls and Womens Partnerships at the National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA), believes that the wrestling community has been working tremendously hard to create a welcoming environment. “I think that we’ve come a long way from that way of thinking. This past year the NFHS just released their participation numbers at the high school level and we have over 50,000 young women wrestling at the high school level – that is a 55% increase from the year before,” she says. Paquette is leading the feminist movement at the NWCA and is determined to create more opportunities for women wrestlers. 

The Technique

There are many people like Paquette working towards a wrestling future where there are just as many women wrestling as there are men. Wrestle Like a Girl is a non-profit whose sole purpose is to empower women and increase their opportunities in wrestling. They also work together with Division 1 Womens’ Wrestling, USA Wrestling, National Wrestling Hall of Fame, National Wrestling Coaches Association, and Wrestlers in Business Network. This group makes up the Womens’ Collegiate Wrestling Coalition (WCWC). The WCWC as a whole is working to create more opportunities for women in wrestling and administers what is currently in place of the National Collegiate Athletics Association Championships for women: The National Collegiate Womens’ Wrestling Championships. 

The NWCA has made numerous efforts to build womens’ opportunities and confidence in the sport. Paquette has many roles within the NWCA, but a major one is advocating for women in wrestling and celebrating them. “I put on an event at our national convention focused around celebrating women in our sport. We’ve got an initiative that we are working on to support women in wrestling and [I] also go and do various speaking engagements,” she says. 

Currently, proponents of womens’ wrestling like Paquette are advocating for women-specific singlets. The NWCA, USA Wrestling, and the National Federation of State High School Associations are collaborating to create a girls practical uniform guide. “[The guide is] focusing on… the need for resources around providing girls specific uniforms and sports bras and what is going to make our young women the most comfortable and confident to go out and compete,” Paquette says. These singlets are higher cut on the neck and sides in order to provide the support and protection that women need in order to feel comfortable out on the mat.  

One group within the WCWC, USA Wrestling, is leading efforts in increasing diversity of wrestling. USA Wrestling is the organization that governs freestyle wrestling and greco-roman wrestling in the United States. Recently, they added a training course for coaches specifically about coaching women. The course was added this past summer and has been a huge help to coaches and wrestlers alike. 

Justin Rogers, Head Wrestling Coach at Blair, took the course over the summer and finds it has been eye-opening and helpful. “They actually brought up some things that I had never thought about as far as all of the biological changes and things that happen with girls, women throughout…menstruation and all of the body changes that can happen, which can affect sports performance…It brought [a] really nice awareness to [some things]... that being a guy that… I've never experienced before,” he says. 

As the number of women in the sport of wrestling continues to climb, people are becoming more hopeful and excited for the future. Paquette has high hopes for the future and wants to create an equitable experience for womens’ wrestlers. “I want us to get to a place where girls have the same opportunities as boys… I want us to be in the same place where it's not just the girls as an afterthought to the boys… I want the girls to have their own standalone events… I want the girls to be on the same level as the boys and I want to be able to give them those opportunities,” she says. 

There are many women who want to wrestle, who love wrestling, and who are yearning for those equitable experiences. Jovanovic references the present while looking to the future of wrestling. “We are the fastest growing sport in the country, both the high school and the college level. And part of that is just because… we've been able to say [that] it's okay for me to wrestle. This is us,” she says. While the world might not be completely accepting of the sport yet, womens’ wrestling is growing rapidly and will continue to do so until it has the same opportunities as mens’ wrestling.

Last updated: Oct. 20, 2023, 2:03 p.m.

Tags: Blair wrestling Girls Wrestling

Giorgia Toti. Hello! I am Giorgia Toti, a junior at MBHS, and this is my first year as a writer on Silver Chips Online. Along with a love of writing I am a part of Girl Scouts and am finishing my final Gold Award project, a coxswain … More »

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