By Jasmine Cannon
Until two decades ago, a fan could go to a wrestling match and all of the athletes shared a common trait: they were male.
Now the ladies have leagues of their own. Twelve years ago, women’s wrestling became an Olympic sport. Today 28 colleges sponsor a varsity program and more than 11,000 girls participate in high school, according to the National Wrestling Coaches Association. California, Tennessee, Washington, Texas, Alaska and Hawaii host girls-only high school state tournaments.
“When I started wrestling in high school, there were no kids programs available or junior high programs available in Hawaii [for girls],” said Clarissa Chun, the bronze medalist in the 2012 Olympic games in the 48 kg weight class. “Now when I go back home and all across the country, I see little girls wearing little singlets.”
Chun grew up practicing judo. At 16, she agreed to join the wrestling team after Hawaii, where she lived with her family, created a girls-only state tournament. Nearly two decades later, she is one of the most well-known athletes in a sport that was in danger of being dropped from the Olympics.
The International Olympic Committee reinstated wrestling at least through the 2020 Games, in part because the sport’s governing body made the number of weight classes even for both women and men. This summer in Rio de Janeiro, women and men will each compete in six weight classes.
Erin Vandiver, an assistant coach for the USA national team, got into the sport after watching her two older brothers practice and compete.
“When I started when I was five, it wasn’t even an Olympic sport, and now I’m an Olympic team coach,” said Vandiver, who wrestled at Lock Haven University as a member of the varsity men’s team.
Within the next couple of years, according to assistant national coach Emma Randall, USA Wrestling plans to file for NCAA “emerging sport” status, which requires at least 20 varsity or club teams on college campuses. Women’s wrestling may also become an emerging sport in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, which represents the smaller four-year colleges with the majority of women’s wrestling programs. Many also participate at junior colleges.
Female wrestlers currently compete for national championships through the Women’s College Wrestling Association. The culminating tournament includes schools from different divisions and conferences where “it’s every man for himself,” Randall said.
More chances to wrestle in college mean girls can do what they love and further their education and athletic careers. For some of the trailblazers, it’s about more than being the toughest athlete on the mat.
“The opportunities that they have now are just tremendous, and [women’s wrestling] has just grown so much,” Vandiver said. “It’s given them the opportunities to travel, to get education, to learn life skills, to be independent, to be strong, to be beautiful, all those things into one.”