Boys’ wrestling only woman coach in Chicago high schools on her wins and challenges

By Clara Facchetti
Medill Reports

Angela Kus started her coaching career in Chicago sixteen years ago. Kus, who is an English teacher, had always been interested in sports and wanted to coach football. When she first expressed her interest, her male principal at the time laughed and suggested that she coach volleyball or cheerleading.

So, Kus started coaching volleyball. She finally got her chance to become assistant football coach when she transferred to Nicholas Senn High School, a public school in northern Chicago, in 2012.

Two years into working with the football team, the boys asked her to start coaching wrestling, Kus said. For her first six years, she was one of just a few women to coach boys’ wrestling in Chicago high schools. This school year, she is the only head coach, according to the Illinois High School Sports Association’s school directory.

While her girls’ wrestling team trained for the state championships, Kus reflected on her journey as a woman coach.

What was your first exposure to wrestling?

I went to an all-girls’ Catholic high school, so wrestling wasn’t really an option for me, but my friends from the boys’ school across the parking lot wrestled. After a while, I [asked them] to teach me.

What was your very first coaching experience like?

It was like the good old boys’ club: the football coaches were all male and the wrestling coaches were all male. If you wanted to coach as a woman, you could coach softball, volleyball, or cheerleading. That was just kind of how it was.

When you got to Senn High School six years ago, you started coaching football and wrestling thanks to an understanding woman principal. Do you think her gender positively influenced your ability to coach boys’ wrestling?

I feel like the community at Senn in general made it easier because there were very few people who said, “Oh, you can’t do this because you’re a woman.”

My own team was very welcoming and very accepting. My first team consisted of five kids, and I had coached all five of them in football. They were very open to my suggestions. They were very open to my style of things.

You’re the only female coach for boys’ wrestling in Chicago for the 2019-20 season. What are some of the challenges that you’ve had to face to get to this position?

Probably acceptance by other people. I’ve been told by referees that I’m not very nice. I didn’t realize my job was supposed to be “being nice.” I thought I was here to coach.

I’ve been told by colleagues that I’m too aggressive. You would not say that to a man who was coaching the sport. I’ve been told that I’m not very maternal. I had one father come up to me and tell me, “I hope you don’t have children, because if you do, I feel sorry for them.”

Most of the network that I built for myself and the coaches who I worked with on a regular basis were accepting and welcoming from the beginning. It’s mostly when you venture out of that happy little bubble that I’ve actually had coaches [underestimate me] and think, “Oh, this should be easy.”

Women who coach boys’ sports are still subject to stereotypes and discrimination, which is bad enough. Are there other factors that you’ve had to deal with?

I’ve walked into rings and have been told that parents aren’t allowed. What makes you think that I’m a parent because I’m a woman? They also assume that the male parents who are with us are the coaches.

I’ve had referees call me sweetie, sweetheart, baby, or baby girl. I had one referee put his arm around my shoulder and say, “It’s okay, baby girl.”

When these types of situations take place, how do you address that with your team?

I talked about it with my first two teams, but now it’s the kids who are the ones addressing it with the adults. They’ll say, “Hey, you can’t talk to her like that, you can’t touch her like that.”

If I didn’t have the support of my colleagues, I would not be able to be as effective doing what I do.

Can you describe your coaching culture in a few words?

We are very much a family. Every kid who’s on my team understands that they are there for each other. They know that they have people that they can count on. A lot of times if something’s going on with one of the kids, the rest of the kids know about it before I know about it. They’ve taken care of it already.

You also coach girls’ wrestling. How do you maintain a culture of respect and equality within both teams?

I actually have 32 girls on my roster this year, one of the largest girls’ teams in the state and we are working on growing wrestling. It’s an emerging sport. The boys don’t look at female opponents as female opponents. They look at them as another wrestler and they give them that respect. All the girls are forces to be reckoned with.

What is necessary to encourage more women to go into wrestling?

Exposure to the sport for starters. If you’re looking at women between 25 to 35 years of age, they didn’t have the exposure because it just wasn’t a thing. Today, it has gained a lot of popularity because of wrestlers like Ali Reagan. With the last Olympics, it gained a lot of popularity because the women outperformed the men.

It was exciting, and people thought, “Wow, I didn’t know women could do this.”

I think that the girls who are wrestling now will probably go on to coach in some aspect.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Photo at the top: Angela Kus (left) and her 2019-2020 team. (Photo courtesy of Angela Kus)