Mon. May 20th, 2024

Growth of Women’s Wrestling Defies Expectations

By Faith Vander Laan Apr 16, 2024

By: Fath Vander Laan and Tiffaney Hughes

Once considered a male-only sport, women’s wrestling has quickly become the nation’s fastest-growing high school and collegiate sport.

When Tehani Soares was in high school, she decided to join the boys’ wrestling team. That decision raised a few eyebrows. She said she quickly discovered that battling stereotypes can be as challenging as opponents on the mat.

“There’s a lot of stigma that comes into play,” she said. “Boys can only do this, and girls can only do that. It was a little difficult at first because I was the only girl coming out and trying to show out for everyone.”

Now a senior on the women’s wrestling team at the Indiana Institute of Technology in Fort Wayne, Soares said she doesn’t feel nearly as alone. 

She has 50 teammates at Indiana Tech, and there’s a surging stream of recruits coming up through the high school ranks.

The number of high school girls wrestling quintupled over the last decade, growing to more than 50,000 girls representing 6,500 schools in 2023, according to the latest data from the National Federation of State High School Associations. Forty five state athletic associations now sanction the sport with its own season and state championship series.

At the collegiate level, nearly 150 schools now field women’s wrestling teams. 

The NAIA recognized women’s wrestling as a national championship sport in 2023. The NCAA announced last month that it will do the same beginning in 2026. 

Indiana is among the five states yet to sanction high school girls’ wrestling, with a decision expected this year on whether to elevate it from “emerging sport” status. 

The delay, however, has not deterred the state’s coaches association from running its own season and state championship or from Indiana girls making names for themselves on the national scene. Of the 2021 U.S. Women’s Olympic Team, two of the six team members hailed from Indiana.

Soares teammate at Indiana Tech, Andrea Hernandez, said sanctioning the sport in Indiana, as well as in all states, is incredibly important in order to give girls the opportunity they are waiting for.

High school girls in unsanctioned states, more often than not, are left with no other choice than to wrestle with the boys.

“I know a lot of females who want to wrestle, but they are too scared to compete with guys. They just want that separation,” Hernandez said. “Learning about Sarah Hildebrant, Kayla Miracle, those women came out of Indiana. I feel like that alone shows that if we have women from the state who can go compete at an Olympic level, why would we not sanction it?”

Paul Rademacher, the head women’s wrestling coach at Indiana Tech, said the main argument against sanctioning girls’ wrestling at the high school level is athletes who still want to compete against boys.

“There are some people that … still want to compete against the boys because they feel like it’s better competition,” Rademacher said.

Rademacher said competing against boys may be better for a particular athlete, but sanctioning the sport and separating the divisions is better for the growth of the sport as a whole.

Cody Younce, the head wrestling coach at Eastbrook High School, said there has been a spike in the number of girls who wrestle in Grant County, with four out of the five high schools having girls on their boys’ wrestling teams.

“It’s crucial to get programs up and running as early as possible so that the girls don’t find themselves behind the rest of the state and country,” Younce said. “It’s very hard to play catch-up in the sport of wrestling.”

Neither of the two colleges in Grant County have men’s or women’s wrestling teams. Younce said it would be nice to see local colleges start programs.

“When high school girls see there are opportunities beyond just high school, they tend to strive for the chance to compete at higher levels,” Younce said. “It will help to further boost numbers of athletes at the high school level.”

Thad Tyra, the head girls’ wrestling coach at Kokomo High School, said that the strongest argument for further growing the sport is what it does for the self-esteem and confidence that it provides young women.

“You’re doing something that guys have done for so many years,” Tyra said. “Whether you win or not, anytime somebody steps on a wrestling mat, that’s a huge undertaking.”

That sentiment is shared by Lee Miracle, women’s head coach at Campbellsville University and father of Olympian Kayla Miracle.

“Every hurdle that you overcome and everything that you do in the sport is going to just make you a little better,” Miracle said. “Setting goals and working towards goals, and learning how to fail and learning how to succeed … all of that makes you a better person, and it’s going to make you more likely to succeed at whatever it is that you do in your life. It’s just day in and day out, doing it over and over and over.”

Eastbrook’s Younce said the traits wrestling instills correlate to leadership and the work environment because of its intense focus on self-discipline. Though wrestling is considered an individual sport, bonding is found in hard work and the sacrifices that teammates make.

“Everyone must help push one another to bring out the best in themselves and the team,” Younce said. “To be a successful wrestler, you must do things right even when no one is paying attention.” 

Hernandez said wrestling has helped her stay on a good path.

“Everyone pushes you to be your best,” Hernandez said. “If you’re surrounded by the right people and you surround yourself with greatness, you can be great.”

Carley Anderson, a wrestler at Indiana Tech, said she loves seeing the growth of girls’ wrestling.

“Obviously, you have the guys that don’t like it and say that women shouldn’t do it, so I like to see that there is a lot of growth within this sport,” Anderson said. “Knowing that it used to be a male-dominated sport … now it is growing into women dominating it as well.”

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