Wrestling is a big deal in Iowa. If you walk into any bar in the Hawkeye State during its high school wrestling tournament, chances are the event is blaring on every TV in sight.
Like many states, Iowa doesn't offer separate sex divisions in high school wrestling, meaning that boys and girls must wrestle each other. Despite the local popularity of the sport, there's not much of an infrastructure for its female athletes — only two girls have ever qualified to participate in Iowa's state high school tournament since it started almost a century ago. Many athletes, coaches and fans of female wrestling want the status quo to change, including Charlotte Bailey.
The 47-year-old coach has been coordinating the state's only standalone wrestling tournament for girls since 2012. Bailey wants to see more girls involved in the sport, and says that parents can often be reluctant to have their daughters wrestling boys. She also thinks that girls have a better chance at long-term wrestling success — like making it to the Women's National Championships — if they're able to compete against each other at a young age instead of having to compete against boys. "Some [girls] will never know how good they would have been had they been wrestling their female peers," Bailey said.
These barriers didn't stop 17-year-old Felicity Taylor, a senior at South Winneshiek High School, from getting involved in the sport. After she was cut from the cheerleading team freshman year, Taylor tried out for wrestling instead. Now, she's the first girl in Iowa high school wrestling history to win more than 100 career victories.
Achieving that record meant Taylor had to compete against more than a few boys who have a problem wrestling girls. "Some of them don't like it," said Taylor. "They'll bump away from me, which frustrates me. You just gotta overcome that, and just deal with it, and know that they're bumping away for you for a reason ... they're scared."
Taylor wants to continue her wrestling career at the collegiate level after she graduates from high school, but there are just a handful of collegiate women's wrestling programs in the U.S. — and at that level, women aren't allowed to wrestle men, despite the fact that many female high school wrestlers never had leagues of their own.
Waldorf University in Forest City is the only college in Iowa with a dedicated women's wrestling team. It's one of 38 colleges that are part of the Women's Collegiate Wrestling Association, a league separate from the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which doesn't recognize women's wrestling. Tyreece Gilder, 32, is the team's head coach. Gilder says if the NCAA recognized women's wrestling, there would be an immediate boost in opportunities for women wrestlers seeking to compete at the collegiate level.
Getting that recognition is a goal of the Colorado-based group called Wrestle Like A Girl. Sally Roberts, a two-time World bronze medal winner and three-time U.S. National Champion wrestler, founded the organization to provide resources for women seeking to wrestle in college. Roberts, a 37-year-old former Marine, says the sport changed the course of her life from a young age. "It's a sport that teaches girls life skills and how to own their space, own their bodies, own their voices," she said.
That's part of the formal pitch her group, and organizations like USA Wrestling and the U.S. Olympic Committee, have been making to the NCAA to open its doors to female wrestling. There are a host of NCAA membership benefits that male college wrestlers can receive that their female peers don't have access to, including health insurance, scholarships, grants and internship opportunities. The WCWA provides its members health information and recognizes athletes who achieve certain GPAs, but doesn't have the same financial assistance as the NCAA.
Seventeen NCAA colleges are ready to start women's wrestling teams if the NCAA will sanction them — including the University of Iowa, which has won 23 men's NCAA championships and produced World and Olympic medalists.
Girls seeking success in wrestling say they want the same benefits and opportunities as their male peers already have — and by providing them to college athletes, many more girls in high school, like Felicity Taylor, might be inspired to get involved in the sport.
"Why would you cut off half the population to such a great sport?" said Coach Gilder. "The sport offers so many benefits that it doesn't make sense to keep that half of the population out of it."
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Across the country, women's wrestling is increasingly popular. Still, while it is an Olympic sport, only 40 colleges offer women's wrestling programs. Advocates say that wrestling empowers its athletes. But one real boost would be for the NCAA to recognize the women's teams. Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters reports.
CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Wrestling is a big deal in Iowa. Walk into a bar during the high school state wrestling tournament, and it's likely on every TV. That's in part because there are no pro sports teams in Iowa. And when it comes to wrestling, they start them young.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Brailey (ph), go. Get out of there.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Kick your feet.
MASTERS: That's a mother on the sidelines shouting at her 11-year-old daughter wrestling at Iowa's only standalone tournament for girls. Like many states, Iowa does not offer separate divisions for boys and girls in high school wrestling. While wrestling is a big deal here, there's not much of a focus or infrastructure for girls. Charlotte Bailey wants that to change. She coordinated this tournament. Only two girls have ever qualified to wrestle boys in Iowa's state high school tournament since it started almost a century ago.
CHARLOTTE BAILEY: Some of them are going to stay, and some will never know how good they would have been if they had been wrestling their female peers.
MASTERS: Bailey says parents can often be reluctant to have their daughters wrestling boys. But that didn't stop South Winneshiek High School senior Felicity Taylor, who tried out for wrestling against boys as a freshman after she didn't make the cheerleading team. Now she is the first girl in Iowa high school wrestling history to get 100 career victories, though she admits some of the boys she wrestles still have a problem wrestling girls.
FELICITY TAYLOR: Some of them, like, don't like it. So then they'll, like, bump away from me, which frustrates me. But you just got to, like, overcome that and just deal with it and know that they're bumping away from you for - like, for a reason. It's not because - they're scared.
MASTERS: Taylor is now looking at colleges. But at the collegiate level, women mostly are not allowed to wrestle men. And there are only a handful of women's wrestling programs at the collegiate level. Waldorf University in Forest City, Iowa, is the only college in the state with a dedicated women's wrestling team. It's one of 30 colleges that are part of an association separate from the NCAA. Tyreece Gilder is the head coach.
TYREECE GILDER: Why would you cut off half of the population with such a great sport? The sport offers so many benefits that it doesn't make sense to keep that half of the population out of it.
MASTERS: Gilder says if the NCAA recognized women's wrestling, there would be an immediate boost. Getting that recognition is a goal of the Colorado-based group called Wrestle Like A Girl. Sally Roberts heads the group and is a former Marine and award-winning wrestler. Roberts says wrestling changed the course of her life at a young age. And that's part of the formal pitch her group and others like USA Wrestling and the U.S. Olympic Committee have been making to the NCAA.
SALLY ROBERTS: It's a combat sport. It's not only in the Olympics - hopefully within the NCAA fairly soon - but it's a sport that teaches girls life skills and how to own their space, own their bodies, own their voices.
MASTERS: Wrestling is up against other sports in trying to get varsity status for women - from acrobatics to rugby. The NCAA did not respond to interview requests and has set up a long and complex process for attaining that varsity status. But Sally Roberts and others are pushing forward. And 17 NCAA colleges are reportedly ready to start women's wrestling teams if the NCAA will sanction them - colleges like the University of Iowa, which has won 23 men's NCAA championships and produced world and Olympic medalists. Girls and women seeking success in wrestling say they want the same opportunity. For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters in Des Moines.
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