• U.S.

Girls Get A Grip

4 minute read

Friday-night wrestling at Annapolis High. As in countless other high school gyms, there are mats on the floor, crowds in the risers and bunches of well-muscled teenagers warming up. The wrestling teams from Annapolis and Arundel high schools in Maryland are stretching, jumping, rotating their heads and shaking out their hands. Nicole Woody, 16, is the only girl on either team. It is unclear whether the 105-pounder will get a chance to wrestle this evening. She’ll have to see if anyone on the Annapolis squad matches her weight. A female wrestler is still a curiosity, but Woody is no novice, having just returned from Russia, where she competed with the U.S. women’s wrestling team.

Wrestling runs in the Woody family the way music may run in yours. Two brothers wrestled, a cousin is on the Annapolis team, and her uncle is one of the coaches. Her other uncles wrestled too. Strict Christians, they are not enthusiastic about boys facing girls on the mat. They think it’s immodest, and it somehow upsets their notion that females should defer to males. Her uncles are not alone. Girls who wrestle boys routinely endure heckling, forfeits and what they feel are unfair calls. But Woody, an Olympic hopeful for 2008, will not be deterred.

The advent of women’s wrestling as an Olympic event has moved the sport to the élite ranks. The U.S. took two medals–a silver for Sara McMann and a bronze for Patricia Miranda–at Athens in 2004. Women’s wrestling is growing in the U.S., where girls have gradually gained access to the mat, thanks to Title IX’s gender-parity provision. Schools are required to give the girls a shot with the boys if there aren’t enough females or funding for a girls team. And so about 7,000 female students from grade school through college are working out and wrestling against guys.

Parity does not equal popularity, and coed scholastic wrestling remains a contentious issue. For the very young–in some wrestling clubs, coed matches start as early as age 6–it’s just cublike fun. As children mature, however, many critics find problems with coed contact. The demands of the mat–raw and primal aggression–seem to go against the qualities our culture instills in girls. And for boys, wrestling against girls seems to contravene the lessons they were taught about not hurting girls and keeping their hands to themselves. Texas and Hawaii ban coed matches in high school, so these two states have the most all-girl teams.

A lot of boys don’t mind that division. Terry Steiner, coach of the U.S. Olympic women’s team, echoes the common observation that coed wrestling puts boys in a no-win situation. If they win, they lose; they have bullied a girl. If they lose, they really lose; they have lost to a girl.

Girls like Woody insist on having a chance. “It’s not always easy to find a wrestling partner,” she says. “No one wants a girl.” Puberty typically lifts most boys out of her weight class; it also means boys grow exponentially stronger than girls, lessening the girls’ chance of winning. But Woody and thousands like her are standing their ground. “I never have to sit out practice because I always make someone practice with me,” she says.

Tonight Woody gets a bout. Her head kept low and her confidence high, she matches her male opponent tap for tap and grab for grab, and finally brings him down by the ankles. An American-flag skullcap hides her hair, and it’s hard to tell which finely muscled arm is female, which male. The match is scoreless after overtime, but Woody wins by a decision.

Patricia Miranda, the bronze medalist at Athens in the 48-kg class, says her matches against males, which continued through Stanford, were invaluable to her development as an athlete and a woman. Wrestling offers “tremendous benefit for the female population,” she says. “Girls learn the value of hard work, accountability and self-worth, things you can’t get from magazines, boys or other girls.” Although she won just once in her college career, she maintains that the only way for women to gain parity in the sport is through continued access to matches. If that means wrestling boys, so be it. Miranda’s aim is to help establish women’s wrestling as an NCAA Division I sport. That would enable women to pursue an education and an activity they love–a double blessing for kids like Nicole Woody.

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