Womens wrestling hits the mats in Iowa high schools

In the state of Iowa, 164 girl wrestlers are now part of their high school teams. The increase of girl wrestlers has made the Iowa High School Athletic Association consider finalizing Women’s Wrestling as an official high school sport.

Freshman Ella Smith has always dreamed to be part of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) women’s league. She started to train in Brazilian jiu jitsu and kickboxing, but when the CFHS wrestling team came to mind, she saw a path to reach her goals. “I wanted to join the team because I have been interested in mixed martial arts fighting and UFC-related things,” Smith said. 

Along with Smith, 164 girls in Iowa joined their high school wrestling teams in the current academic year, up from just 40 who participated five years prior. The increase in girls’ wrestling participation in Iowa reflects broader interest in women’s wrestling.

“I think for wrestling coaches, it is something that we have been seeing in the works in growth of participation for the last few years. With the success of the U.S. Olympic women’s freestyle team, it is understandable to see the growth at the scholastic level,” Waverly wrestling coach Eric Whitcome said. 

One of the first full women’s high school wrestling teams formed at Waverly-Shell Rock High School. “The coaches knew that most of us girls have never wrestled before, but they also understood that we are fast learners and are willing to put in the work,” Waverly-Shell Rock senior wrestler Abby Bechtel said.

The 11 girls on the team motivated each other as women’s wrestling trailblazers. “Many people would say ‘making history’ about our team, and it was super cool to hear that. It’s my senior year, and I decided to go for it because I feel like if I didn’t, I would only regret it,” Bechtel said.  

The student wrestlers have not only had to battle on the mat, but had to fight the perception that wrestling is just a men’s sport. 

“At first, students would mildly make fun of us, saying that it’s a big joke and that we can’t actually win a match, but our first meet was a home meet, and the crowd filled the stands, and our first four girls all won their matches, so now lots of other girls want to join. It is definitely very difficult, but is so much fun,” Waverly-Shell Rock senior Rosie Giesler said. 

In Cedar Falls’ home dual against Western Dubuque, Smith had no one to wrestle due to a male wrestler refusing the match. “It was definitely a bummer that they didn’t want to wrestle me, but I have heard about other boys in different schools doing the same things to other girl wrestlers. I went into wrestling with knowing that some boys might not want to wrestle me. I know that it isn’t just me dealing with boys doing this because there are other girls out there in wrestling dealing with the same thing,” Smith said. 

As the only girl on the CFHS wrestling team, Smith has grown close to the boys supporting each other and considers them as her brothers. 

“I think it has been super fun and great opportunity to grow and gain more confidence since being a girl on an all boys team, especially in a 4A school. It takes some courage to do,” Smith said. “I have gotten my first match at a meet out of the way so it has helped me overcome that fear of stepping in front of a crowd to wrestle. In practice I also have gotten a couple of pins. That has been a pretty big accomplishment since I went in with almost no skills,” she said.  

CFHS wrestling coach Chris Ortner expects a women’s wrestling team for the future of the wrestling program as the sport becomes more mainstream. 

“It wouldn’t surprise me if someday we have both a men’s and women’s team. I think it’s only going to continue to grow and evolve,” Ortner said. “I’ve seen the evolution of women’s wrestling. When it first started, the quality was not great, but as things have evolved, many of the top level women in the country are just as good technically as the top level men,” he said. 

In light of the increased number of girls in the state participating in wrestling, a state tournament will be held on Jan. 19 at Waverly-Shell Rock High School. Before formally adding women’s wrestling to the the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union, more girl participants need to join. 

“WSR had volunteered to host a girls tournament this year. We happened to be the last girls tournament on the schedule this year, and so we were asked to host. I have had communication with [Iowa High School Athletic Association’s Director of Officials] Lewie Curtis throughout the past year about the growth of wrestling, and so I think with that relationship, WSR was a good fit to host the state championships,” Whitcome said. 

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), girls participation in high school wrestling across the nation grew from 5,527 in 2007-08 to 16,562 in 2017. 

“I believe the world needs to be more disciplined, and part of that is being willing and able to make a commitment to something that is worthwhile but not easy.  Wrestling involves all of that, and I think the more people that can take part in the sport, the better the world we live in will be,” Whitcome said. 

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