Girls' wrestling takes center mat

Wrestling seemed like a great idea at the time, an alternative to the standard blahs of winter. So last school year, when then-freshman Jessie Kaech wanted to play a winter sport but thought she would get bored with basketball, she joined the Sedro-Woolley (Wash.) High School girls' wrestling team.

Kaech's first season is behind her, but her first day of practice still stands out.

"I just remember coming home, and I was really thirsty because we sweated a lot," Kaech said. "The next day, everything was hard because we were so sore. We were a lot slower. I remember being really tired."

And oh, the pain. Take burning lungs, deep soreness to the core, defeat -- and that was a typical workout for grapplers like Kaech.

Kaech practiced against Alysia Pohren, who was in Kaech's 125-pound weight class. Pohren went undefeated last season, and she captured an individual state title and helped lead the Cubs to a state team title.

"It just felt like I was getting thrown all over," Kaech said.

Pohren, who will be a junior this school year, has been wrestling for 10 years.

Persistence and practice against Pohren paid off for Kaech, who finished eighth in the state meet. Schools can qualify more than one athlete in a weight class.

Wrestling is far from becoming a mainstream sport for girls, but there is a school of thought suggesting girls might be better built for it than boys in some ways.

"It's harder, I think, for girls to lose weight than boys; I don't know why," Pohren said. "But girls are more flexible than guys, and we probably have an advantage over guys in getting hurt."

Growth of a movement

When Pohren and Kaech return to the mat this winter, they'll likely have more company nationwide.

Three years ago, Washington became the third state to sanction girls-only, varsity-level state championship meets in wrestling, joining Hawaii and Texas.

According to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), 5,527 girls competed in high school wrestling in 2007-08, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

While that pales compared to the 259,688 boys in the sport, it's not far behind a more traditional girls' sport. Gymnastics had 8,621 competitors that school year, according to NFHS.

Girls compete against one another in Oregon, California and some other states, too. To a great degree, though, the only option for female wrestlers at the high school level is to cast their lot with, and against, boys.

Attracting girls to the sport at schools with no girls' team can be difficult. Some female grapplers have fared well, particularly in lighter weight classes.

But sometimes there is a social stigma that follows girls who wrestle.

"It's not a woman's sport," said Sedro-Woolley girls coach Barb Morgan. "But once you get them, they're mentally tougher because they know they have to be. They know they're going to have friends say, 'Oh my God, you wrestle?'"

"There are challenges for the sport," said Todd Tergeson, the Sedro-Woolley athletic director. "A lot of programs start out with just a few girls and that doesn't qualify for a coach, so it's part of the boys' program."

That's not the case at Sedro-Woolley. The boys' and girls' booster clubs are combined, but the two teams operate separately. The girls' team has its own practice room and locker room at a nearby elementary school.

"It gives the girls a sense of identity," Tergeson said. "We pay the coaches the same, give them the same allowances for uniforms. It's a real community thing. It builds a lot of support."


Wrestling helped Kaech become more athletic in the other sports she plays.

"In softball, I got faster. And I could run farther. My time for the mile, half and quarter were a lot better in P.E."

Conditioning and training are important for wrestlers, and the Sedro-Woolley team promotes the healthy benefits to recruit prospective wrestlers.

"As a rule, I push the girls hard," coach Morgan said. "One of the reasons we do so well is they're so well-conditioned. It's body toning. It's going to make them look better in their prom dresses.

"We trickle that down to our young girls: 'Hey, here's a sport that kicks your ass, but you're looking better at the end of the season.' That's part of society."

From her experience helping coach boys in previous years, Morgan has learned how to work with and coach female wrestlers.

"Boys have a tendency to be completely motivated by competition," she said. "Girls are less motivated by competition, and more by social reasons, their friends. You can't just say, 'We have to train harder because we have a competition coming up.'

"They'll only go so far, and then they'll shut down. They just won't work for four hours. They need a break."

To keep her team from hitting the psychological wall that can come from fatigue, Morgan mixes up practices by showing training videos. The time off the mat gives the wrestlers a mental break from the sport.

One advantage Morgan sees in coaching the girls' team is that most of the wrestlers are learning the basics and haven't developed bad habits. She can teach them about a move and teach the strategy behind it and why it works.

Girls' wrestling advancements

Women's wrestling became an Olympic sport in 2004. Gary Abbott, spokesman for USA Wrestling -- the sport's governing body -- said world-level women's tournaments began popping up in the late '80s.

"We think there are at least 1,000 more [girls in high school wrestling] than the federation numbers because of the way some schools report participants," Abbott said.

Girls' wrestling was first sanctioned up to the state championship level in Texas and Hawaii in the 1998-99 season, the same year the Texas University Interscholastic League (TUIL) began sanctioning the boys' sport. Before that, wrestling had a separate sanctioning body in Texas.

The TUIL reported 1,640 girl wrestlers and 7,783 boy wrestlers last school year.

The NCAA does not sanction the sport for women, though about a dozen college programs will compete for the second annual national title next winter under the governance of the new Women's College Wrestling Association.

Cisco Cole, the men's and women's coach at Jamestown (N.D.) College and a co-founder of the WCWA, said people still look at girls' wrestling as a novelty.

Even in Sedro-Woolley, where there is a strong wrestling tradition, there is still the mentality that the sport isn't for girls.

"It's just the whole concept of girls wrestling," Kaech said. "That's how my dad was. He told me wrestling was for boys. He didn't think I'd stick with it."

"The key is getting people to watch. Then, you can't help but be impressed by the girls' dedication," Cole said. "The key is getting the product out there so people can see it."

Matt Winkeljohn left the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after spending 21 years there. He can be reached at mattwinkeljohn@yahoo.com.