Certain sports, such as wrestling, feel as though they have a kind of entry barrier based on one’s gender, so breaking through is a big deal. This year, it has been announced that women’s wrestling will finally be recognized as its own independent sport by the Oregon School Activities Association (OSAA) after many years of efforts toward achieving this goal. This will lead to a great many changes from how things have been for female wrestlers in past years.
Originally when women were first allowed to wrestle, there was no separate category for them in competitions; they were just on the men’s team and would compete against men. Over the last 15 or so years, the sport has shifted slowly to divide the men’s and women’s competitions, starting with prioritizing women competing with women, then to having a women-only regional competition, then to the separate division within men’s wrestling in 2018, and finally up to this new development.
Trent Kroll, athletic director and a wrestling coach at Hood River Valley High School, describes how he petitioned OSAA in Jan., which led to the unanimous vote in favor of women’s wrestling becoming its own entity. However, it’s predicted that there will be a two year transition period full of questions and answers that will impact the athletes and competitions across the state. During this time, coaches across the state will be focusing on their own goals, like separate funding and practices, for each of their teams. He said that though things may be hard, “we have given the opportunity for school districts to say ‘okay, we’re going to fully support a program with separate schedules, buses, uniforms, and their own head coach’ … that’s exciting.”
As for what the introduction of a separate women’s wrestling program will look like at Franklin, head coach of the men’s wrestling team, Steve O’Neill, said that he intends to have Kilsi Naanee, one of the men’s team’s assistant coaches who has worked with the current girls on the team, step up as the head coach of the women’s team.
O’Neill has always said how the team is like a family, no matter whether you are a brother or a sister on the mats. The people in the wrestling room, whether they’re a wrestler, manager, or coach, will support you. “We’ve all been brothers for a long time. Now we have sisters too. That’s just how we’re going forward,” O’Neill emphasized.
O’Neill talked about other schools that are also going to be participating in the new sport, saying, “There’s some places like Cleveland [that are] always five years ahead of the curve and so they’ve got a fairly complete girl squad.” He adds that the more women there are on a team, the more likely others will join them, it’s just going to take some time— time he is willing to endure.
One member of the iconic Cleveland women’s wrestling team, Zinnia Sirokman (12), talked about both the highs and lows of being a woman in a male-dominated sport but on a supportive female team. “Ever since I started wrestling, I could see the difference between men and women’s wrestling: not having as much mat time, to not even being able to compete in tournaments because there was no girl for me to wrestle.” This has been a common experience for women wrestlers over the years. If there is no girl in their weight class on the other team, they may end up wrestling a guy, but in some cases a male teammate may be registered for the shared weight class in the woman’s place.
One big goal for the sport in the coming years is that men and women will be competing completely separate from one another, only men against men and only women against women. Here at Franklin, O’Neill intends to have the two teams, men and women, practice and be coached separately, so it’s just girls with girls; he hopes that this will allow girls to feel more comfortable participating .
Not all schools will be following in O’Neill’s footstep though, as there is no standardized blueprint for the coming process. Kroll said that at Hood River they will have Hood River graduate Jessica Lister take on the role as head women’s wrestling coach, and that he is “really excited to see female coaches coaching the female athletes.” Due to the exponential growth of women’s wrestling all over the country, there are many benefits for the athletes, both in finding scholarships and opportunities to continue wrestling as well as being able to pay it forward as a coach to more young women.
In the past, Kroll’s style of coaching was limited to the strengths of male athletes: “I had the females doing the exact same thing as the males in practice, that’s what I knew how to do… I was just coaching everybody the same way.” Later on, he realized some fundamental differences between the men and the women and had the epiphany that “if we were running our female athletes and our male athletes the same techniques, we weren’t giving them 100% of what they needed.” This led to Kroll introducing differing techniques and methods for the women that would cater to their strengths and body types. This is an example of the pattern of certain things being designed for male bodies, thus discriminating against women. Thus, when women break into a field, changes will need to be made to accommodate them.
The past mistreatment of women in a historically male-dominated sport has not always been obvious, but walking into a room full of skin tight clothing and being the only girl is bound to cause some discomfort. Sirokman wrote, “I have definitely felt alienated due to the fact that I am a girl in a men’s wrestling room. There would be times I would show up to practice and I would be the only girl there and it would be kind of intimidating. I kind of felt like I would need to prove myself more because I was a female.” I also felt similar experiences in my wrestling stints, whenever I would go to an extra morning practice, it always felt like the hierarchy within the team was pushing on me from all sides. Despite this, both Sirokman and I know that our teammates are more than just that, they are our family, and we are theirs.
Even within a family though, there are certain alliances that will stand out for each person. Sirokman described how she viewed the community found with female wrestlers: “Female wrestlers will go above and beyond [to support one another],” and they “make each other laugh, smile, and even cry, and always have one another’s back no matter what.” Devann Belles, a recent Franklin graduate and long-time woman wrestler, agreed with the sentiment, writing, “The bond was undoubtedly there between the males and females, but the bonds built amongst the females are the ones worth mentioning.” From my time wrestling I have seen much of the same support from female wrestlers, especially at women-only competitions. Even when I’d only gone to one competition that season, I was able to talk with girls at weigh-ins that I hadn’t seen since the season before and find a comrade in arms.
Belles describes her love for the sport, writing, “I feel that wrestling is a great opportunity for women empowerment, given that the athletes in this sport are primarily male. I think it is important to acknowledge just how far women have come and continue to go, just to be able to compete.”
Wrestling is a grueling sport; this is reinforced by O’Neill’s consistent reminder to wrestlers during practice that “9o% of the people in that school cannot do what you are doing here.” The limits that are pushed and the sacrifices that are made tell the story of the dedication it takes to flourish in the sport. Now, with OSAA adding women’s wrestling as a separate sport, the added hurdle of being a woman in the wrestling room can be eased.