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Thursday, October 13, 2011
Wrestling women are changing the Sumo sport

By Elaine K. Howley

At 5-foot-4 and 169 pounds, Natasha Ikejiri lines up almost exactly with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's definition of the average American woman: 5 feet, 3.8 inches tall and 164.7 pounds. However, the 20-year-old kinesiology major and ROTC student at UCLA is anything but average. On a dare in 2009, she hopped from the basketball court into the sumo wrestling ring, and she now is one of the top-ranked female wrestlers in the country.

Natalie Burns, 29, a three-time national women's sumo champion, has 50 pounds and six inches on Ikejiri, making her a formidable opponent in the ring. Even so, the Rigby, Idaho, waitress does not look the way most people might expect a sumo wrestler to look.

What's most striking about Burns, Ikejiri, and the handful of other competitive female sumo wrestlers in America is that most do not line up with the common notion of sumo wrestlers as obese men in modified diapers ritualistically shoving each other from a round ring.

Neither Burns nor Ikejiri appears overweight. Rather, they look fit, strong and healthy. Like the athletes they are.

"I don't eat all the time or cram in junk food. I'm an athlete and athletes need to take care of their bodies. I stick to my normal, healthy diet and do a lot of cardio and weight lifting," Ikejiri said. She gets her cardio work through her early-morning military workouts, which she supplements with football drills and judo work. "The people that I've seen who are really successful have a background in either football or judo, so I work a lot on staying low," she said.

Burns also hits the gym regularly. She doesn't have many opportunities to train with other wrestlers because she lives in a remote area, but she makes do on her own. She practices her initial approach by charging full speed at a tree in her backyard, and spends hours on the stair climber to improve her leg strength.

What draws these otherwise ordinary women to an extraordinarily rare and potentially socially stigmatizing sport is the opportunity to excel and do something exciting that so many other women would never dream of attempting.

"When I started wrestling, it was hard to explain to people what I was doing," Ikejiri said. "I got a lot of questions from people like, 'Do you wear a diaper?'" Yes, women wear the traditional mawashi -- a canvas belt that is an important tool for controlling an opponent -- over a spandex wrestling singlet. Burns humorously calls it a "ma-wedgie" because of its tendency to ride up uncomfortably during competition.

People also often ask Ikejiri about weight gain and whether she plans to become "fat." The answer is no. "Then they realize I'm small," Ikejiri said, "and they say, 'Wait, you're too little. You're gonna get dropped!' But I don't. There are weight classes."

Both Ikejiri and Burns eat healthfully and work with their natural talents. Burns said she has even entertained the notion of dropping weight to be able to compete in the middleweight class.

The amateur lightweight class includes women up to 143 pounds, and middleweight wrestlers can weigh up to 176 pounds. The heavyweight class is reserved for women over 176 pounds, not much larger than the average American woman. In competition, all classes can compete together in the open-weight division. Ikejiri was this year's open-weight national champion, besting Taunia Arave, who, at 357 pounds, outweighs Ikejiri by an entire heavyweight human being. But this disparity in size and Ikejiri's success indicate that despite the common perception that heavier is better in sumo wrestling, the fact is, this sport is all about speed, power and the element of surprise.

The establishment of weight classes is recent and applies only to amateur sumo wrestling. In professional sumo -- an ancient sport still steeped in centuries of male-centric, Japanese tradition -- women aren't even allowed near the dohyo (competition ring) let alone in it. In traditional sumo culture, the idea of women battling each other is simply outrageous. But that hasn't stopped the sport from growing in the U.S.

Andrew Freund, director of USA Sumo and a trustee of the United States Sumo Federation, the national organizing body for sumo wrestling, said that the sport is still tiny, but is developing a devoted following. "Realistically, in a given year there might be close to 100 people involved in the U.S. Sumo Federation, either competing or doing some demonstrations. Among that number there might be 8 to 10 women," with Ikejiri and Burns being the best among them, Freund said.

Sumo is aiming for inclusion in the Olympics. But to get in, it must increase female participation to comply with a 1994 ruling by the International Olympic Committee that single-sex sports no longer qualify as candidates to be added to the Games. While there is no specific participation number required, the IOC considers adding sports based on popularity, universality, history and tradition, image, athletes' health, development of the international field and the financial costs of contesting the sport.

Regardless of the newness of the program, amateur women's sumo has grown along with a movement to develop women's sumo clubs to satisfy the IOCs dual-gender requirement. But sumo for women has proved to be a more difficult sell than some other Olympic contenders, in part because the sumo movement must completely reverse thousands of years of ingrained tradition while simultaneously head-butting Western notions of beauty, femininity and how female athletes should look.

"It's tough being a female sumo wrestler," Burns said. "I understand that a lot of women are self-conscious and it takes a lot to get out there in those outfits. There's this hesitation on the women's part, and I initially suffered from that as well, but I got over it."

An ambassador of the sport, Burns attempts to convert fans and recruit participants every chance she gets, encouraging women to join for the fun of it and the opportunities sumo offers -- body size and image be damned. "I tell them, 'Don't feel bad! Just get in there and do something with your bigness. Go be tough and beautiful.'"

Ikejiri and Burns both were originally slated to compete in the 2011 Polish Open held Oct. 8 in Krotoszyn, Poland, but as unsponsored athletes with limited resources, neither was able to attend the event. They both continue to train for future events.