High school girls wrestling is one of the fastest growing sports in the United States.
Take Fremont High’s wrestling program as an example. Last year, the Silverwolves finished the season with five girls on the team and there’s 16 on the team this year with four more testing the waters and 12 more in the youth program.
Brooke Handley, a junior who’s been wrestling for two years, is Fremont’s team captain, head coach Cody Storey said.
“Each year for the last five years it’s really started growing. We’d get a girl here and there in our youth program ... which was like a sibling that wanted to roll around with their brothers. It’s consistently growing even in our youth program,” Storey said.
There’s a high school girls wrestling state championship in Utah County every February, plenty of girls wrestling clubs in the state, tournaments, clinics and lots of support for a sport that doubled in participation nationally from the 2010-11 school year to the 2016-17 year.
And now in Utah, it’s officially sanctioned.
The Utah High School Activities Association Board of Trustees voted at its Nov. 21 meeting to officially sanction girls wrestling starting in the 2020-21 school year.
That would ostensibly target the first official girls wrestling state tournament sometime in February or March 2021, about a year-and-a-quarter from when the vote happened.
“I think it’s really awesome, these girls are tough, they try hard and I think that it’s good that they get into it and enjoy it,” Handley said.
There’s much to figure out in the meantime. The BOT’s approval simply approved sanctioning and nothing else at the moment.
Details like how many classifications, weight classes, regions, state tournament logistics and many more have yet to be figured out, UHSAA assistant director Jon Oglesby said.
Oglesby said the BOT and Executive Committee will work with the UHSAA staff over the coming months to figure out those details, hence the absence of a big announcement from the UHSAA.
“I think it’s a super, super exciting thing for the sport of wrestling, for the gender equality improvement needs of our state, which is lacking behind most states significantly. More importantly, hats off to the UHSAA,” said Craig LaMont, girls wrestling director for USA Wrestling Utah.
From the 2017-18 school year to the 2018-19 school year, Utah high schools added 23 participants in girls wrestling for a total of 124, according to participation statistics published by the National Federation of State High School Associations.
The introduction of girls wrestling clinics, practices and clubs has helped foster the growth of the sport in Weber and Davis counties, the state of Utah and the rest of the country.
But it’s been a long, not-always-pretty struggle for girls to break through in wrestling.
The sport was the battleground for a contentious lawsuit between the Janis family in Layton and the Davis School District that was settled in February 2017.
The DSD denied Kathleen Janis the chance to try out for the Central Davis Junior High wrestling team in 2016 as an eighth grader, so the family sued the district and a judge sided with the family, allowing Kathleen to try out for the team.
Kathleen Janis is a now senior and has wrestled at Layton High for multiple years.
Supporters of girls wrestling are optimistic that the sport becoming officially sanctioned will help drive even more growth.
“Some girls are really timid to wrestle guys, so when they figure out that there’s going to be more girls here too, I think that’ll be good,” Handley said.
In 2008, Uintah High’s Candace Workman became the first female wrestler to reach the state finals. Every year at the state wrestling championships, held at Utah Valley University in February, there’s almost always a girl wrestling in the main bracket.
The growth of girls wrestling also comes at a time when boys wrestling has lost 8% of its participation nationally, or 22,073 participants, between the 2013-14 school year and the 2018-19 school year.
“You hear the rumors, ‘Oh wrestling’s on its way out,’ so I think it’s crucial to get these girls programs sanctioned because if we want to grow our sport, I think the girls are the way to do it,” Storey said.
USA Wrestling Utah puts on a high school girls wrestling state championship every year in February held at Telos U, a residential treatment center in Orem.
The tournament’s current setup may offer a glimpse at what’s to come as far as classifications and weight classes go: one classification, 14 weight classes.
As Oglesby alluded, further details about the sport’s infrastructure will be officially decided in the coming months. For now, the sport continues to rapidly grow and excitement builds toward 2020-21.