Pinning down the competition


Regan Peterson

Making history, Sydney McFadden gets her arm raised after winning her match against Seckman during the first ever girls wrestling team match, Nov. 28.

In 1998, Julie Tucker became the first female to qualify for the Missouri wrestling state championships, wrestling against all male competition. Over 20 years later, the fastest-growing girls sport is finally an option for high school girls in Missouri.

“I never really wanted to wrestle with guys, so when I found out there was going to be a girls team I was like ‘Here’s my chance,’” Cora Skaggs (9) said.

Member schools of the Missouri State High School Activities Association voted 202 to 41 to separate the sport of high school wrestling into sex-separated wrestling for both boys and girls, beginning during the 2018-2019 school year.

Missouri became the ninth state to add girls wrestling as an official sport and the third state to add it this season along with Georgia and Oregon.

Prior to this year, girls who wanted to join their school’s wrestling program had to wrestle boys.

This certainly had an effect on the number of female wrestlers participating in the sport at their high schools. There are only 18 females who have qualified to compete at the state championships, and only one has won a state medal, according to the MSHSAA record book.

“I’d been contemplating joining the guys team, but now that there’s an all girls team I knew that I could wrestle girls,” Madi Reisig (12) said. “I was more comfortable with it.”

The decision to divide the sport based on sex ultimately came when the number of female athletes joining the boys wrestling team began to accelerate.The number of female high school wrestlers has skyrocketed from 804 to 16,562 since 1994, according to the National Wrestling Coaches Association. MSHSAA additionally chose to create a two year transitional period, allowing girls to continue wrestling boys until the 2020-2021 season. However, they will still be limited to girls postseason competition.

One of the only differences between male and female wrestling is the formation of weight classes. Along with having fewer classes for girls, permanent weight classes won’t be made for two years, according to the MSHSAA wrestling implementation program.

“We hope as this sport grows with the girls that more weight classes will be added,” Allie Gentry, head coach, said. “Despite having less experience, our girls show promise and determination and it makes me very excited for the future of our girls program.”

Although the sport is still small, turnout for the first year exceeded expectations. In the 2017-2018 season there were 196 females on wrestling rosters, but now that girls wrestling is an official sport, there are 708.

“I’ve talked to the state a couple of times and they weren’t expecting anything near this,” Gregg Cleveland, athletic director, said. “They doubled and almost tripled the number of girls that they thought were going to do it for the first year.”

After MSHSAA made the decision to implement girls wrestling programs throughout the state, news of the new sport reached EHS.

“The state is the one who sanctioned it and said this is the year it’s going to start.” Cleveland said. “All I had to do was make sure that eligibility-wise all the girls were there and then figure out how we were going to stage the matches.”

At the inaugural week of tryouts, 11 girls joined the team under newly-named head coaches and EHS alumni Allie Gentry and Tara Lester.

Gentry’s father, Mark Gentry, has been the boys wrestling coach for the majority of his 29-year career. Both her twin brother and younger cousin have wrestled for EHS.

“I’ve been around wrestling my whole life and know the sport very well,” Allie Gentry said.

Growing up around wrestling seemed to be a common theme for members of the team. Many had friends or family that introduced them to the sport.

“All my guy friends are wrestlers and so they were like ‘just come to the preseason and see if you like it.’” Michaela Hill (10) said. “As soon as I started I realized I love it.”

For those who came to tryouts the first week, wrestling became a big hit.

“It’s cool because it’s a different kind of sport,” Skaggs said. “It’s on yourself and it’s based off of how you perform.”

The athletes emphasized that although wrestling is considered an individual effort, it is truly a team sport.

“I like having the girls there to support each other even though its a single person sport,” Hill said. “But at the same time you have an entire group of people there to support you.”

But the newness of the sport also came with challenges.

Wrestlers are subjected to intense workouts, something that beginners may not be used to.

Practices are loaded with learning new techniques and improving cardio. At one point, EHS had U.S. Marines come in to run drills for the team.

“The biggest challenge for me was pushing myself at every practice because wrestling practices are the hardest practices I’ve ever experienced,” Reisig said.

Not only was the sport unfamiliar to the new wrestlers, but also to other students. Many had not yet grasped the concept that female wrestling was a sport.

“I saw the paper and I was like ‘Really?’” Edrance Emmanuel (12) said. “It was something new, and I didn’t know if it was going to catch on as well as it did.”

Parents became concerned that their daughters would obtain injuries or simply didn’t want them to participate in such an aggressive sport.

“My family didn’t want me to do it for a while because they didn’t want me to get hurt,” Reisig said. “Now they’ve been acclimated to it and now they’re super excited to come to every match.”

Over the season, girls wrestling has become more widely accepted, and has even sparked interest.

“I have a couple of friends that are on the girls wrestling team and they show me videos, and it’s pretty impressive.” Emmanuel said. “I’m pretty sure they could take me down.”

There are even girls that have considered picking the sport up.

“If I wasn’t a diver, I would have done it myself,” Lauren Guest (11) said. “I’m just really competitive.”

Swim and dive and basketball are the only other winter sports that high schools in Missouri offer. But club sports for activities outside of school often have winter practices and showcases in the off season that interfere with the ability to try out wrestling.

Those activities, paired with different levels of participation at each high school has brought challenges in finding matches and tournaments. Some schools have less girl wrestlers than EHS, while some have twice the amount.

“There’s some challenges that go along with anything that you start adding, but throughout the state the number of girls who have participated is through the roof,” Cleveland said. “As people get more used to it, as girls see what’s going on, I think it’s going to continue to grow.”

With the success of the U.S. Women’s Wrestling program and increase in college scholarships available for female wrestlers, it is safe to say that the sport will keep gaining momentum.

Girls’ high school state championships are already held in California, Texas, Oregon, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Texas, Tennessee and Washington, and 48 colleges offer girls wrestling programs, according to the National Wrestling Coaches Association.

“There are a lot of people pushing for women’s wrestling,” Gentry said. “I would love next year if we could fill a whole line up for dual meets and tournaments. I hope to see some girls up on the wall in the wrestling room under the state rankings or even a state champion.

The first ever district tournament for girls wrestling will be Saturday, Feb. 2., and the state championships are February 14-16 at Mizzou Arena.

“It’s really cool to be a part of the first people to ever do it,” Hill said. “That’s what they constantly remind us. ‘You will always be the first, you will always be the first.’”