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Participation in Girls Wrestling Explodes Across Country

By Cody Porter on December 20, 2021 hst Print

President Richard Nixon’s momentous passage of Title IX legislation in 1972 generated countless new athletic opportunities for high school girls nationwide. That year, no fewer than 27 state high school associations hosted their first-ever girls championships. Two years later, more than 40 states were hosting championships for girls, headlined by tennis and track and field.

Fast forward to today when female student-athletes are enjoying additional participation opportunities as Title IX’s 50th anniversary draws near. In the past two decades, traditional boys sports like football and wrestling have captured the attention of many young girls. Even more recently, successful athletes such as Sarah Fuller and Tamyra Mensah-Stock have empowered prospective young female athletes to jump into the action with their male counterparts.

In 2020, Fuller became the first female to kick, and later score points, for a Power 5 conference football team. At the Tokyo Olympics in August, Mensah-Stock became the first American Black woman to win Olympic gold in wrestling and the second American woman to ever do so.

While increasingly popular flag football programs provide an alternative to plateauing girls participation numbers on tackle football teams, girls wrestling’s resounding success has resulted in the NFHS Wrestling Rules Committee establishing separate weight classes, effective with the 2023-24 season. The sport’s past five years of growth in participants and championships is greater than any other.

Twenty-five states have added separate girls wrestling championships since 2018, joining the six states of Hawaii, Texas, Washington, California, Alaska and Tennessee to sanction it from 1998 to 2015. Connecticut added an additional class for its 2019-20 postseason, opening the door for its first-ever girls wrestling invitational.

The Utah High School Activities Association (UHSAA) is among the more recent states to implement a girls championship, having conducted its inaugural event in February 2021. UHSAA Assistant Director Brenan Jackson, who oversees wrestling, said the move followed a substantial push by the state’s larger classifications to get more girls involved in the sport.

“Wrestling is a very unique sport. It is one of the toughest – if not the toughest – emotionally, physically and mentally on a young man or young woman,” Jackson said. “There’s a core group of girls across the state who wanted to be challenged in those areas of life. They like the competition and physical exertion that wrestling provides. We were glad that we were able to offer these girls the opportunity to compete so that they could experience it, and even work toward earning college scholarships.”

Approximately 550 girls participated during Utah’s first year of competition, according to Jackson. He said early returns from hydration testing suggest the 2021-22 season may see that figure nearly double.

Nationally, girls participation in wrestling climbed from 4,975 participants in 2005 to 7,351 in 2010. The most recent NFHS High School Athletics Participation Survey revealed participation almost tripled by 2018-19 with 21,124 girls participants. As many as 28,447 participated during the 2019-20 season, according to data collected from the National Wrestling Coaches Association and state high school associations by the USA Wrestling Girls High School Development Committee.

When the NFHS Wrestling Rules Committee convened for its annual meeting in April, chair Anthony Clarke and fellow members recognized the timely need to address the void in female-friendly weight classes within the existing rules.

“Most states already featuring girls wrestling had a strong need to see something come from the Federation,” Clarke said. “All those states already had different weight classes, so they reached out to the committee and said, ‘Just like with the boys, we need to get a set of weight classes in the rules for girls to follow.’ In doing so, it standardizes the rules and allows for interstate competition.”

Joan Fulp and Andrea Yamamoto both have deep roots in high school wrestling. They currently serve as co-chairs of the USA Wrestling Girls High School Development Committee and have worked closely with Clarke and the NFHS Wrestling Rules Committee.

“Symbolically, for me, the addition of separate weight classes is as much an official stamp of approval as there can be for girls wrestling as an NFHS sport,” Yamamoto said. “Weight classes form the basis of wrestling, so it’s a huge official acknowledgement of high school girls wrestling within the NFHS. The first time Joan and I had a chance to talk to the wrestling rules committee, we suggested it was time to start thinking about gross weight classes. At that time, no one in the room, including us, had any idea how quickly girls wrestling was going to accelerate. But with that acceleration, I was glad to see the NFHS started seriously looking at and discussing separate weight classes.”

Fulp and Yamamoto’s discussions with the NFHS Wrestling Rules Committee coincided with similar discussions the duo had with state association directors, liaisons and high school coaches.

“What does the coach need right now? What do they want to see? What do the wrestling liaisons need to see? How have coaches associations been driving girls wrestling in their state,” Yamamoto said they asked. “It came down to gathering as much information as possible to learn more about states. We also wanted to learn how it worked in, what I call, a small market state like Wyoming. They may have just over 60 schools competing. How do weight classes apply to states of that size as compared to one of the original six states, where they have thousands of girls wrestling?”

When the 2023-24 season arrives, states must select one of the three sets (12, 13 or 14) of weight classes to respectively apply to boys and girls wrestling competition. States cannot adopt all three sets and cannot switch back and forth during the season.

The following weight classes (in pounds) were established for girls competition (girls wrestling girls), effective July 1, 2023:

12 Weight Classes – 100, 107, 114, 120, 126, 132, 138, 145, 152, 165, 185, 235
13 Weight Classes – 100, 106, 112, 118, 124, 130, 136, 142, 148, 155, 170, 190, 235
14 Weight Classes – 100, 105, 110, 115, 120, 125, 130, 135, 140, 145, 155, 170, 190, 235

The following weight classes (in pounds) were established for boys competition (boys wrestling boys or girls wrestling boys), effective July 1, 2023:

12 Weight Classes – 108, 116, 124, 131, 138, 145, 152, 160, 170, 190, 215, 285
13 Weight Classes – 107, 114, 121, 127, 133, 139, 145, 152, 160, 172, 189, 215, 285
14 Weight Classes – 106, 113, 120, 126, 132, 138, 144, 150, 157, 165, 175, 190, 215, 285

“Previous surveys have indicated a varying number of weight classes that states wanted, so the committee attempted to meet the needs of as many people as possible,” said Elliot Hopkins, NFHS director of sports and student services and liaison to the Wrestling Rules Committee. “The recommended weights were established based upon more than 215,000 assessments from the National Wrestling Coaches Association,” Hopkins added. “We are excited about these changes to weight classes in high school wrestling as we believe it will provide more opportunities for male and female student-athletes to be involved in this great sport.”

A byproduct of the addition of separate weight classes is gender equity. In states where girls no longer have to only compete against boys, prospective participants could now be more encouraged to try out for teams in the absence of any longstanding stigma faced by each gender through competing against the other.

In Wisconsin, where the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) held its inaugural girls state wrestling tournament in January 2022, WIAA Associate Director Mel Dow said there was a distinct discrepancy in what girls within the sport could define as a successful season.

“Knowing that there was a high level of interest within the state, and those girls were succeeding in the sport at the national level against other girls yet not achieving similar success against boys within the state, it was easy to recognize the competitive field was inequitable,” Dow said. “Providing a competitive field for girls provided those student-athletes realistic opportunities that have been afforded to boys in the state for years. We recognized that in more than 80 years of wrestling, the WIAA has only had two girls qualify for the state tournament, which was a strong indication that there are limitations based on a single gender division.”

Dow added that girls in Wisconsin and across the nation alike gain the chance to be optimistic about their season’s outcome, knowing from the onset of a match or tournament that they will “be able to compete without having to overcome the comparisons of gender.”

The topic is one often addressed by Fulp and Yamamoto while presenting to groups about the values of girls wrestling. Yamamoto, who wrestled for Richland (Washington) High School in the late 1980s, has also both coached and wrestled at the national level. Through her experiences, she has continuously seen the weight carried by both genders when having to compete against one another.

“When I was wrestling, it was not unusual for boys to forfeit to girls. That was pretty common,” Yamamoto said. “The boy and girl involved in a match are carrying a bit of a burden. Boys carry a social burden of ‘If I beat a girl, it’s not a big deal because she’s considered less than, and if I lose to her, it’s horrific socially.’ It’s a very no-win situation for a boy. For a girl, expectations are so low that she won’t be successful. ‘We don’t even want her out there. You know, we don’t even want this to happen.’ So, both boys and girls have been carrying a burden there.”

Gender-based burdens such as those described by Yamamoto came as a surprise to a group on the receiving end of a presentation by Fulp, who referenced the struggles of a successful female wrestler in California who once competed in her daughter’s weight class.

“Due to her success against boys, her team expected that she would win what was then the unofficial girls state championship,” Fulp said. “She placed fifth. When she returned to the room where she was stationed with her male teammates, they asked, ’You didn’t win you? You placed fifth? How could you lose to a girl?’ She quit wrestling. We have to evolve past this dynamic of it being okay when girls wrestle boys and lose to them, or, if they win, thinking they must seriously be the best female wrestler in the nation. To quote Andrea (Yamamoto), ’We can’t make boys the greatest competition. Our girls’ goals need to be higher. Girls need to wrestle girls.’”

The higher goals referenced by Fulp have gradually risen in recent years with the sport’s growth. What was once possibly defined as participating in a match, defeating a boy or even qualifying for a boys state tournament has since shifted to winning a state championship, and even earning a college scholarship.

As was the case in Utah, the benefits of adding the sport also helped validate the Florida High School Athletic Association’s (FHSAA) recent decision to add its upcoming inaugural girls wrestling state tournament.

“We are now at a time where we are seeing major Division I universities adding women’s wrestling,” said Corey Sobers, FHSAA assistant director of athletics, who oversees wrestling. “The coaches around the state of Florida believe that girls wrestling is ready to explode once the opportunity is provided for them to wrestle other girls. Not only is that beneficial to female wrestlers, but it also will generate more interest in wrestling overall and hopefully even increase our pool of officials, including female officials.”

On September 23, the University of Iowa made history by becoming the first Power 5 conference school to add a women’s wrestling program. In all, the program will be able to offer 10 scholarships. The Hawkeyes join Sacred Heart University and Presbyterian College as the three Division I schools to offer the sport.

“Colleges are now offering scholarships and, in addition to Iowa in Division I, there are a lot of Division II and III colleges offering women’s wrestling,” said Clarke, who is also a wrestling official in his native Illinois. “In 2001, it was introduced as an Olympic sport ahead of the 2004 Olympic Games in Greece. That started a trend for the females to see there’s another avenue.”

Iowa announced the hiring of Olympic gold medalist Clarissa Chun as its first-ever women’s wrestling coach in November. Chun had been serving as an assistant coach for the USA Wrestling women’s national team.

Across the NCAA landscape, there are 13 Division II teams, 22 Division III teams and 36 NAIA teams. Since 2020, women’s wrestling has been recognized by the NCAA as an emerging sport. It can become an NCAA Division I championship sport if adopted by 40 schools in the next 10 years.

In the coming months, many states will see girls take to the mats in championship events for the first time. Of the more than 30 currently featuring girls championships, Florida and Wisconsin will be joined by Idaho, Illinois, North Dakota, Michigan, Minnesota and Nebraska.

“Wrestling has a real unique community. When you’re a wrestler and you connect with another wrestler, there’s a uniqueness about it. I know every sport can say that, but wrestling really is different,” Fulp said. “I love the story I got from Ian McDonald, who was president of the British Columbia Secondary Schools’ Wrestling Association and very instrumental during the 1980s in getting girls wrestling going in Canada. Ian said, ‘The staff at our high school looked at wrestling as those sweaty, hairy kind of guys over there with gnarly ears. When we added girls wrestling, the administration looked at us differently, the staff looked at us differently. All of a sudden, they see this new community that they were excited about.’ That is what’s happening now with girls wrestling.

“Every girl who experienced wrestling at a high school level – no matter whether or not they go on to college or was their team’s top wrestler – experienced the intensity, community, excitement of being a member of a team who walked onto the mat and was the individual who said, ‘I’m out here. It’s me and you.’ There’s nothing like that height of an athletic experience.”