Women’s wrestling wins gold, gains in popularity, but still faces adversity

By EmmaKate Austin

When Rio Olympian  Elena Pirozhkova was in seventh grade, her brother persuaded her to join wrestling. Not knowing what she was getting herself into, she assumed it would be something along the lines of the WWF or WWE’s Monday Night Raw. She thought she would be jumping off of ropes, tackling her opponents and smashing chairs.

But wrestling was quite a bit different than she envisioned, and despite pressure to quit, she kept coming back to the sport and can now call herself a world champion and an Olympian.

Women’s wrestling has come a long way in the last few years, and while those close to the sport are happy to see the progress, they know there are still barriers for women wrestlers to get the respect they deserve.

When most women started in the sport, their only option to compete was to wrestle boys.

“I remember if I saw another girl wrestle on a team it was a big deal,” said Pirozhkova, who finished her Rio run with a loss in the bronze medal match at 63 kg.

But in the last decade, the sport has grown rapidly, she said. According to the National Wrestling Coaches Association, the number of women’s high school wrestlers has jumped from 804 to 11,496 since 1994, and there are now 28 colleges that sponsor a varsity-wrestling program.

“You can look at numbers and stats: it’s the fastest growing sport in high schools for girls,” said Helen Maroulis, who is the first American female wrestler to win an Olympic gold medal. “A lot of people don’t know that because we still don’t have all 50 states with women’s wrestling programs.” Maroulis won gold in Rio by defeating a 3-time Olympic champion from Japan in the 55 kg weight class.

The sport progressed with the expansion at the Olympic level. Women’s wrestling was first featured at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. The 2016 Games in Rio mark the first time men and women have an equal number of weights, with each having six.

In addition, MMA and UFC have become platforms for showcasing wrestling, said Clarissa Chun, who was a bronze medalist in women’s wrestling at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

Despite the growing popularity of women’s wrestling, the sport still faces adversity and barriers to increased recognition.

While in countries like Russia and Japan wrestling is considered a national sport, wrestling has not received the same attention by the public or the media in the U.S., according to Maroulis.

Wrestlers like Maroulis and Pirozhkova compared wrestling to American football, in that both sports are confusing, yet fans have taken the time to understand the rules of football.

“I don’t really believe the myth or the belief that wrestling’s just not popular because it’s just too confusing,” Maroulis said.

To increase recognition and respect for women’s wrestling, there must be a culture created around the sport where spectators and fans have to adapt and learn the rules, she said.

“I think somebody’s got to get behind it and endorse it,” said Pirozhkova. “It’s just creating that culture, it’s just getting people to be behind it, showing support.”

In order to foster the growth of women’s wrestling, the hiring of qualified coaches must continue, Pirozhkova said. These coaches must be paid, she said, since money will attract the most qualified coaches.

“One thing that’s made a really big difference in the last four years for us is that we’ve gotten a lot of really great coaches more interested in wrestling,” said Marcie Lane, who competed at the 2008 Olympics and currently works as a women’s wrestling coach. “With the better coaches that are coming in and having more respect for women our women’s talent has increased and we’ve gotten better.”

While wrestlers like Maroulis are encouraged with the growth at the college level, they still believe that expansion is necessary, particularly when it comes to support from the NCAA.

“We don’t really have that with women’s wrestling yet and I think that would be a key to continue growing it,” she said.

As more colleges incorporate programs, especially those at the Division I level, women wrestlers can take advantage of other opportunities, giving them the chance to get a college education alongside their athletic career, Chun said.

“We really need to start getting women’s wrestling as an NCAA sport in colleges that offer more majors than our smaller NAIA schools so that girls can see potential as to go and achieve whatever degree that they want to achieve,” said Lane.

Photo at top: Female wrestlers compete at the 2016 Dave Schultz Memorial International tournament at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. (EmmaKate Austin/Medill)