Girls wrestling takes off in Utah clubs and high schools, despite challenges

Thursday , February 15, 2018 - 5:15 AM

Kierstien Bush got up in front of the other 23 Bonneville High wrestlers at practice and demonstrated a circling move the team would practice that day.

As one of the more experienced wrestlers on the team, this is a common occurrence for the sophomore.

Nobody in Kayla Ramirez’s family wrestled, but the Layton High senior quit playing softball so she could pursue wrestling full-time. Now she’s setting her sights on wrestling for a women’s college team.

Samoné Samano’s favorite teacher at Ben Lomond High bet her she wouldn’t last a day at wrestling practice. So she went, loved it and just completed her third year wrestling at BLHS.

Aubrey Carlson and her mother were in a parent-teacher conference at Northridge High with Kevin Kennington, a social studies teacher and the head wrestling coach. At the end, Kennington asked if they had questions. Carlson’s mother said no. Carlson asked how she could join the wrestling team.

“When I first told my mom, she thought I was kidding and she’s like, ‘You’re going to wrestle?’ I’m like ‘yeah, I think it’d be fun,’” Carlson said.

This is just a peek at what’s happening in girls wrestling, which is undergoing an explosion in popularity not only nationally and statewide, but in Weber and Davis counties — despite a downward trend in boys wrestling participation nationally.

The growth of the sport isn’t as cut-and-dried as other sports like lacrosse, the fastest-growing high school girls sport in the United States.

Wrestling has been male-dominated since its inception in ancient civilization, which presents additional challenges to female wrestlers who have to navigate the sport’s already taxing waters.

Yet the sport also presents many benefits to girls and could play a role in Utah’s winter championship season down the road if trends continue.

Growth amid decline

Nationally, girls wrestling participation nearly doubled from the 2010-11 school year (7,351 wrestlers) to 2016-17 (14,587), according to the most recent National Federation of State High School Associations’ participation data.

Official numbers for this school year aren’t available, but coaches and wrestlers report a noticeable increase locally and statewide.

Weber head coach Caleb Hardy said he had six girls on his wrestling team this year, more than last year’s number. Ben Lomond had four, Northridge and Layton had three and many others fielded at least one girl on the roster.

There are numerous girls practices and clinics sponsored by area high schools. There’s even the Northern Utah Girls Wrestling club that practices at Northridge High. The club is two years old and has 32 wrestlers, club director Maria Gomez said.

“It surprises me each time I go to a tournament or a meet, usually every school that’s there has one or two (female wrestlers),” Bonneville head coach Jed Craner said. “It’d be one or two every 20 schools (five years ago), so it’s definitely increasing.”

Why are more girls wrestling? It depends who you ask.

Some, like Bush, are raised in wrestling-heavy families (her sister Samantha wrestles collegiately at MacMurray State in Illinois) and are exposed to the sport’s culture early.

Hannah Barton, a senior at Syracuse High, wanted to try something new and saw fliers for a wrestling clinic at her church.

Danna Hernandez’s cousins wrestled, so she decided to try it.

“I would’ve never thought I would’ve joined wrestling, I was really like more into dance and girly stuff like that,” she said.

One theory suggests that as superstars like Ronda Rousey, Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino and Amanda Nunes gain popularity, it’s helping break the stereotype of women not having an affinity for combat sports.

Others, like Ben Lomond’s Marelangel Maese, have their own reasons.

“My mother, she was a single mom and she struggled a lot, but I saw how tough she was and how she went through so many obstacles by herself so I wanted to be just like my mother, be just as strong as her,” Maese said.

This growth comes during a turbulent time for the sport. In 2013, wrestling was dropped from the summer Olympics docket after the 2012 London games. It was reinstated seven months later, but questions remain about its long-term viability.

During the 2010-11 school year, nearly 274,000 boys wrestled in high schools across the United States. In 2016-17, that number was below 245,000 — a drop of 10.8 percent.

Utah has seen a rise in boys wrestling since 2007-08 — from 2,966 male wrestlers to 3,321 in 2016-17 — but it’s dropped five times year over year and climbed the other four years.

Locally, participation trends vary by school. Frequent coach turnover at Northridge resulted in a numbers drop the past few years, a trend Kennington says was bucked with double the participation this year compared to last.

Ben Lomond coach Gary Boden says his boys numbers have increased the past three years since girls started joining the team.

There are a few reasons for the downward national trend.

More sports are available in winter, so wrestling is no longer the de facto second option after basketball. Some coaches posit that fewer kids want to put in the effort wrestling requires.

Others say wrestling’s singlet uniform is offputting because of its tight and, quite frankly, revealing fit. The NFHS addressed that with a rule allowing wrestlers to wear a tight-fitting T-shirt and shorts as a substitute.

Another reason, as Kennington sees it, is a lack of understanding about wrestling itself. The scoring system isn’t obvious and the nature of the sport involves a lot of bodily contact, which many perceive as weird.

“There’s no secret about basketball and football, and even volleyball, about what the scores were, who are the people to watch, who are the ones that are going to college for these different sports and everybody knows them,” he said. “Nobody knows the wrestlers.”

Challenges and benefits

Nearly two years ago, Kathleen Janis went to try out for the wrestling team at Central Davis Junior High.

She wasn’t allowed to, and the Davis School District cited a provision of federal Title IX law permitting schools to limit some mixed-team participation in certain contact sports.

Janis’ mother, Kelly, sued the school and the district last year in federal court and won the case. Kathleen is now a sophomore on Layton’s wrestling team, but was subjected to enough negative comments during the process to nearly quit the sport.

“We won the case, but I got many ‘It’s a guys’ sport, girls shouldn’t wrestle,’” Janis said. “I got all these guys saying ‘You’re just doing it for attention,’ or girls would be like ‘You’re just trying to get yourself put out there.’”

That attitude is common, wrestlers and coaches say. It has improved drastically over the years, but it still adds another layer for girls already competing in a difficult sport.

“My first four years, there was a lot of people telling me that it wasn’t for me and it’s not for girls, and we should just stay out and let the boys do what the boys should do,” said Bush, who is so well-known in girls wrestling circles that people know who you’re talking about if you just say ‘Kierstien.’

“I kind of felt like it was kind of stupid that they were telling me what to do ... I didn’t understand why couldn’t they be just accepting of it, like, why can’t I do it?” Bush said. “If you’re doing it, why can’t I?”

There’s also the challenge of girls wrestling against boys. Even in the same weight classes, boys have more muscle mass, which can sway a match in their favor even if a girl has better technique.

Not to mention the amount of bodily contact in wrestling, which bugs parents who don’t want their daughters being “manhandled,” since girls rarely get to wrestle another girl unless they go out of state — which many do with club teams.

Even so, it hasn’t slowed the sport’s growth and girls are benefitting in many ways.

“It provides a huge amount of self-esteem for those young ladies and it also teaches them how to defend themselves, and it’s a program that puts accountability on them, teaches responsibility,” Boden said.

Barton, who also trains with the Northern Utah Girls Wrestling club, said she’s become a lot more confident since she took up wrestling four years ago.

So has Janis. And Ramirez. And Samano. And Hernandez. And many others.

And the negative comments, stereotypes and attitudes? They acknowledge those will stick around here and there, but no one’s dwelling on them.

“If you have something negative to say about girls wrestling, take it somewhere else because I’m not here to listen to it,” Ramirez said.

What does the future hold?

Long after a dual meet between Layton and Syracuse ended Jan. 18 at Layton High, Sydney Stout looked like she was preparing for another match.

The Lancers sophomore was jogging in the gym foyer while bystanders mingled near the doors. Her sweatshirt hood was tightly cinched around her head, leaving visible only the focused and determined look on her face.

At Northridge, after the school’s team clears out of the wrestling room, dozens of girls of different ages fill the room and the Northern Utah Girls Wrestling club begins practice.

Later this month, the club is hosting its Battle of the Amazonians tournament in Salt Lake City.

At the rate girls wrestling is growing, scenes like this will likely become more common.

“When I was a kid, there was maybe three girls tournaments for a school year and now there’s three girls tournaments in a month,” said Courtney Maples, who wrestled for three years in high school in southern California and now coaches with Northern Utah Girls Wrestling. “You’ve got girls from all ages and all sizes and it’s just, it’s so awesome to watch.”

Noticeable steps forward for the sport come despite the infrequent chances girls get to wrestle one another in competition.

In January, the annual All-Star Duals at Utah Valley University featured girls matches — three altogether, one including Bush — for the first time in the event’s history.

Supporters say the Utah High School Activities Association sanctioning girls wrestling and hosting a girls wrestling state championship, which would allow schools to create girls wrestling teams, would be a big step forward would be for the sport.

“A lot of those barriers wouldn’t be a problem if we just sanctioned girls wrestling,” Gomez said. “Then girls could just wrestle girls and girls teams would be allowed and it could keep growing.”

Washington sanctioned wrestling in 2006, with 208 girls participating. The next school year there were 281 female wrestlers. By 2010, there were 773 and in 2017 there were more than 1,500.

Washington is one of six states, including Hawaii, Texas, California, Alaska and Tennessee, to have sanctioned the sport.

There’s no indication one way or the other if the UHSAA plans to sanction it in the future, but for the time being, there is a girls wrestling state championship in Utah on Saturday, Feb. 17,  at Telos U in Orem.

It’s put on by USA Wrestling Utah, which is heavily promoting girls wrestling by hosting clinics, training sessions and tournaments in hopes of fostering growth.

Growth that many hope doesn’t stop.

You can reach prep sports reporter Patrick Carr at pcarr@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickcarr_ or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/patrickcarr17.

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