They're Holding Strong
More Female Wrestlers Going to the Mat Despite Mixed-Sex Issues
By Vincent Thomas
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 26, 2004
When David Case organized the first Maryland State Wrestling Association girls' tournament in 2002, it wasn't much of a
tournament at all. Four girls entered.
Two years later, as Case prepares to run Saturday's MSWA girls' championships at River Hill High School in Clarksville,
nearly 50 girls have entered.
"The first year I prepared letters and sent them to every high school wrestling coach at every public and private school
and got no responses," Case said. "But this year I have coaches writing me letters saying 'I have two girls here who wrestle
and want to participate in the tournament.' The difference is that drastic."
The growth Case has seen is hardly isolated. The MSWA event is not affiliated with area high school programs, but nationally,
nearly 4,000 girls competed for high school teams in 2002-04, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
Six colleges have women's varsity wrestling programs and three more have women's club programs. Women's wrestling will making
its Olympic Games debut this summer in Athens, with 12 medals to be awarded.
Five states -- but not Maryland, Virginia or the District -- sanction all-girls high school leagues, and several area coaches
and administrators say they would like to be able to offer the same. But in the absence of such leagues, girls who want to
wrestle for their high schools must practice with and compete against boys. And that's where many are meeting resistance.
Mixed-sex "wrestling is where I draw the line. That's the only one," said Pete Menke, the athletic director at Paul VI
Catholic in Fairfax. "Maybe I'm an old fogey and I'm sure people disagree with me, but I just do not think it is right for
girls and guys to be wrestling on the mat together."
Many other coaches and administrators agree with Menke. In fact, until recently, the Fauquier County school system did
not allow girls to wrestle on its teams at Fauquier and Liberty high schools, nor did it allow the boys on the teams to wrestle
against girls from other schools. Instead, county wrestling teams had to take forfeits in any such match.
Bryan Hurst, Fauquier High's wrestling coach, said he felt the rule was not only antiquated ("Just like some of those old
laws in the South," he said), but it hurt his team -- especially as more girls began to wrestle for schools in other counties.
Fauquier's team captain, Kenny Green, suffered his first loss of the season on Jan. 10 when he was faced with the decision
of forfeiting to Laura Small, a first-year wrestler at Patrick Henry High in Ashland, Va., or moving up a weight class to
wrestle a male opponent. He chose to move up and lost.
Hurst said he was more concerned entering the regional and state tournaments. He said there was a "very good chance" one
of his wrestlers would face a girl and feared it may cost the wrestler a shot at a title.
Hurst discussed the matter with Alan Creasy, the school's athletic director, and they agreed that a change was needed.
Creasy then conferred with David Martin, a county division superintendent, who persuaded the school board to repeal the policy
on Feb. 9.
"I think it's great," said Hurst, who said he would not be opposed to coaching girls if they try out for the team next
year. "This is long overdue. We really needed this ruling, and it's better for everyone involved -- the boys and the girls."
At the three Catholic high schools in Northern Virginia, girls cannot wrestle on their schools' teams -- although the Arlington
Diocese, which governs the schools, does not forbid its wrestlers from facing girls.
"The Arlington Diocese does not endorse female participation in boys' wrestling," Timothy McNiff, the diocese superintendent,
said in a statement.
"When our schools travel to other schools for competition we recognize that we do not set the policies for other school
systems. . . . In these instances, the decision to compete against female wrestlers resides with the student-athlete in consultation
with his coach."
McNiff also noted in his statement that high schools such as the three he oversees (O'Connell, Bishop Ireton and Paul VI
Catholic) are not bound by Title IX, the law that bars sexual discrimination at schools receiving federal funds.
The Northern Virginia Catholic schools compete in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, against schools from Maryland
and the District. Good Counsel of Wheaton and Bishop McNamara of Forestville have had girls on their teams the past few seasons,
and Paul VI and O'Connell wrestlers forfeited matches to those girls at times.
Good Counsel Coach Tim Ryan said the forfeits did not trouble him ("I'd just take the points," he said), but McNamara Coach
Wright Jolly -- whose daughter, Gabrielle, is on his team -- was not happy.
"I told [opposing coaches] they have to wrestle our whole team," said Jolly, who has coached Gabrielle in all three of
her years at McNamara. "I said no more forfeiting, because I'm through playing that game."
After voicing his opinion before the 2003-04 season started, Jolly said no matches were forfeited to his daughter. Both
Gabrielle Jolly and Gabrielle Beall of Good Counsel participated in the WCAC championships in early February, and there were
no forfeits in that tournament.
When listing objections to girls wrestling on boys' teams, some area coaches say extra accommodations must be made for
female wrestlers, such as separate dressing rooms and weigh-ins, and schools must pay added travel costs for additional chaperones
and rooms at weekend tournaments.
Some wrestling moves require contact with the opponents' groin, inner thigh and buttocks -- one is even called the "butt
grab." Some coaches fear that teaching such techniques to a girl in practice could result in a sexual harassment claim; others
say such contact between a boy and a girl is inappropriate.
Anthony Lease, the former Fauquier County Public Schools' division superintendent who persuaded the board to bar mixed-sex
wrestling more than 10 years ago, said his stance has not changed.
"In wrestling, you've got to touch [opponents] anywhere on the entire body," said Lease, currently the head of graduate
studies at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. "So it's not a gender issue, it's an issue of males should not touch
those area on females. Part of the schools' job is to help determine what is and what isn't appropriate, so we shouldn't foster
Mariah Burton-Nelson, a former women's basketball player who has written five books regarding sex roles in sports, disagrees.
She says that banning mixed-sex wrestling because of inappropriate contact is "an attempt to sexualize women" and it helps
perpetuate what she calls "the cootie-effect."
"Is wrestling an inherently erotic or sexual activity?" Burton-Nelson asked. "No. The wrestlers are trying to pin each
other, not please each other."
"Yes we're in weird positions, but we're in a fight," said Patricia Miranda, who will wrestle for the United States in
the Olympics this summer. Miranda wrestled on the Saratoga (Calif.) High School boys' wrestling team and was team captain
her final two years; she also wrestled on the Stanford University men's wrestling team. Miranda says she has never had sexual
thoughts while wrestling and that concerns of sexual overtones on the wrestling mat are misplaced.
Parents of male wrestlers often mention the 'lose-lose' dilemma their sons face when wrestling a girl -- a boy often gets
no credit for defeating a girl, but is ridiculed if he loses to one, they say.
"It's really sad if it's such a bad thing to lose to a person that has trained just as hard and cares just as much about
the sport as you," Miranda said. "And if it's such a shame that you feel you have to ban your son or shield him from what
could be a great experience -- then that's just bad parenting."
U.S. women's national team coach Terry Steiner thinks that all these issues may discourage some girls.
"If she's not only going to have to fight boys who are probably stronger than her, but their parents, her parents, the
school board," he said, "it's much easier to just walk across the hall and sign up for soccer."
In California, Florida, Hawaii, Michigan and Texas, girls have another choice -- all-girls wrestling teams. Few say there
is sufficient interest across the Washington area to start a high school girls' wrestling league -- although Ed Steele, the
wrestling coach at Broad Run High in Ashburn, said he is sure he could successfully field a girls' team next year if there
was a league.
The growth of the MSWA's girls' tournament also indicates that interest in an all-girls' league is increasing. Organizers
will divide the girls into weight classes when they arrive on Saturday, and some of the girls expected to do well here will
compete in the girls' championships in July's USA Wrestling Junior Nationals in Fargo, N.D.
Case said he saw the potential after the first four-girl tournament in 2001.
"After the tournament, we thought we had just started something that was going to be big," Case said. "Their level of enthusiasm
really enforced that this was not just a sport for boys."
Case and his colleagues also think girls' participation could get a big boost this summer, when girls see medals awarded
in Olympic women's wrestling.
"We need an Olympic hero," Steiner said. "Bringing back an Olympic hero will let girls know, 'You can do this.' "
"I think it's gonna send a message to girls," said third-year wrestler Molly Dennis of Broad Run. "It's gonna let girls
know that they can be as tough as guys and do what you want."
The girls wrestling on boys' teams have already absorbed this message. Dennis was born with her left leg longer than her
right, and played soccer in grammar school with a lift-shoe on her right foot. However, wrestling has presented a new set
of challenges -- body aches, exhaustion, and the struggle to maintain weight while craving trips to Outback Steakhouse and
Don Pablo's, her favorite restaurants.
Dennis also had to win over her concerned father, George Dennis, who would have rather had his daughter continue to play
soccer as he did in high school.
"To be honest, I was not enthused," said George Dennis, whose concerns centered around the possibility of injury. "During
the season I kept saying, 'Maybe you'd like to try basketball.' "
George Dennis now says he sees the ways wrestling can help his daughter.
"When Molly graduates and she goes to work, she will be dealing with guys and opposition," he said, "and wrestling has
instilled a lot of discipline in her."
Before she began wrestling, Small spent much of her free time working as an amateur model. When she decided to wrestle,
she knew she would have less time for modeling.
"My friends thought I was crazy," Small said. "They thought I was trying to shock them. They were like, 'You're going to
give up modeling for this?' "
But girls who wrestle are quick to list the reasons they stick with it.
"Wrestling is such a dynamic sport," Miranda said. "It's like a clash of wills, and it forces you to learn how to conquer
yourself and be in control mentally and physically."
Said Molly Dennis: "It has made me comfortable with who I am and taught me not to care so much about what other people
"Wrestling is what makes me happy," said Small. "It makes me feel good to know that I worked my butt off and now I can
run five miles, when I couldn't even run one before. I don't get that from modeling."