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Girls Wrestling Gains Acceptance

High School Girls Grapple with Male-Dominated Contact Sports
A local newspaper dubbed her "The Gritty Grappler," and with good reason. At 112 pounds, Katrina Betts, a senior at Milan High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, had defeated 18 of her 24 opponents in one season, with 11 pins. Her victories were remarkable for several reasons: She not only came back to the mat after life-threatening injuries suffered in a car accident two years before; she also managed to hold her own in a sport where the presence of females is often only grudgingly accepted.

"I'd say the parents are the worst," Betts commented after one tournament. "Actually, I think the mothers are a lot worse than the fathers. I don't think they like it when a girl beats one of their sons."

According to the National Federation of High School Associations, the numbers of girls who compete in wrestling are up dramatically. With the growth in girls' interest in the sport, many schools find themselves literally wrestling with the question of how to accommodate both sexes in a traditionally male sport. Title IX requires any school receiving federal funds to allow girls to try out for and, if qualified, participate on a boys' team if no comparable girls' team is available. Although contact sports -- such as football, ice hockey, and wrestling -- are specifically exempt from the Title IX mandate, most coaches seem inclined to accommodate girls, even if they aren't required to do so by law.

A Level Playing Field?
"At first, it's like, 'Ooo, there's a girl on the team,' but after a week it's no big deal," says Lance Lomano, wrestling coach at Northeast High School in St. Petersburg, Florida, where senior Alix Lauer is the sole female member of the school team. "She's kind of a tomboy, so most of us treat her equally. The guys don't take it easy on her."

Lauer must wait outside the weigh-in room while other teammates take their turns on the scale. She removes more jewelry before a match than other players. Other than that, her presence on the team has become almost unremarkable, Lomano says. Unlike football, basketball, or hockey, where adolescent boys' height or physical strength often makes it impossible for girls to compete on a "level playing field," wrestlers are matched according to weight.

"You're competing against someone in the same ball park, because weight is a leveler," notes Jim Thompson, director of the Positive Coaching Alliance based at Stanford University. "For girls who want to play at the highest level in any sport, playing against boys toughens them up."

"I Got Beat by a Girl"
But what makes for an exciting and challenging opportunity for girls may provide a different sort of challenge for boys, observers note.

"They say, 'Oh, if I ever lost to a girl I'd be so embarrassed,'" coach Lomano says of the boys on his wrestling team. "And the girls know, if a guy loses to them he's going to take a lot of ridicule."

"Thinking about the adolescent boy's psyche, they have so much anxiety and insecurity," says Thompson. "'I got beat by a girl' can be turned inward in a negative way, with negative self-talk, or outward in misogynistic, anti-female vocabulary and behavior."

Lomano has observed no inappropriate behavior on the mat when girls and boys wrestle each other, precisely because, he believes, boys are reluctant to compete with girls in the first place. Despite that, some schools would rather "pay than play."

"We will forfeit a match if a girl is on the opposing team," vows John Herzog, superintendent of Detroit's Lutheran High School Association representing five private high schools. "The opening hold is obscene. They've got the hands on the crotch. You have to draw the line somewhere, and we would say there are ample opportunities for girls in other sports."

A League of Their Own?
Others argue that denying girls a chance to compete in the sport of their choice constitutes social, if not legal, discrimination. The short-term answer, Thompson believes, is sensitivity training for coaches, so they know how to deal with both boys' fear of ridicule and girls' feelings about being ostracized. In the long term, all observers agree, the best scenario is for girls to wrestle other girls on teams of their own. In fact, women's wrestling has gained acceptance worldwide.

In the meantime, a growing number of young women seem determined to take their place on the mat, despite the obstacles.

"The guys are so much stronger," wrestler Alix Lauer told the St. Petersburg Times, "but I try not to think about that. It's like running. I say to myself, 'What's stopping me from putting one leg in front of the other? Nothing.'"


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