Girl power: The rise in girls' wrestling
It's one of the fastest-growing high school sports in the country: Girls' Wrestling! In Minnesota, it wasn't even an official sport until the last school year; now the number of girls wrestling in the state has more than doubled, from 250 to 541, led by champions like Skylar Little Soldier, of Hastings. Now a 16-year old junior wrestling at 145 pounds, she is ranked as one of the Top 10 Girl's High School wrestlers in the country.
She described her grueling training regime: "At 5 a.m., I wake up and I do 500 pushups, sit-ups, squats and dips." That's 500 each.
Brave asked, "What got you interested in it?"
"My little brother," she replied. "They took me with him to his wrestling practice and I just, I wanted to start right then and there."
And Little Solider, a proud descendant of Native Americans, now has a slew of honors, including state champion.
When she started wrestling at age five, the only opponents around were boys. Braver asked, "Did they say, 'Ah, she's a girl, I'm going to beat her easily'?"
"Yeah. People said that for a long time."
"I just kept proving them wrong."
Little Soldier's head coach, Tim Haneberg said, "She is someone that has broken the glass ceilings and opened the doors for those other girls."
Haneberg said that last season – the first time Hastings High School fielded a girls wrestling team – it was just Skylar and five other girls: "This year we had 18 girls in our program, so we've tripled in size since last year. And I already have girls begging and pleading and wanting to join the sport for next year, because of the girls I have in right now."
Sally Roberts, who was a champion herself, is a major reason that girls wrestling has taken off. She said, "Wrestling is a powerful sport for girls, because it teaches how to own their space, their voice and their body. Every time you get knocked down, you have to get back up."
Roberts is founder of the advocacy organization Wrestle Like a Girl. When asked the meaning of the name, she replied, "I was at a wrestling tournament, and this little girl came up to me, and she was so upset. She said, 'I just beat this kid wrestling, and he said it doesn't matter, because I wrestled like a girl.' I said, 'Wait a minute, I'm a two-time world bronze medalist, and if he wanted to win, maybe he could wrestle like a girl, too.' Like, there's no shame in that. So, we took that name and we honored it and we owned it."
Roberts said she grew up in a stress-filled home and was constantly in trouble: "I ended up getting arrested so many times, I got put in front of a juvenile detention officer who said, 'Hey, if you don't find an afterschool activity, you're going to face going to juvenile detention."
She said wrestling turned her life around. After winning many titles, and a stint in Army Special Forces, she started Wrestle Like a Girl in 2016. Back then, there were only six states that recognized girls high school wrestling as an official sport. Today, there are 38, with more on the way!
- KHSAA in Kentucky adopts girls high school wrestling for 2023-24, making it the 38th state to add sport
American women (Helen Maroulis and Tamyra Mariama Mensah-Stock) have won gold medals in wrestling at the last two Olympics. But they have not received as much attention as other champions, in part, said Roberts, because of the false perception that the sport is not feminine.
Don't tell that to the girls who attended a wrestling workshop at American University in Washington, D.C.
Attending the workshop, Perla said, "The media has always portrayed, like, contact sports as so masculine and something girls couldn't touch because we're 'fragile.' So it was just like, why not break that stereotype?"
Cyndi said that, at first, "I was like, 'No, it's for guys, I don't want to that, I want to be a cheerleader.' And then I realized I was like, 'Hey, this is kind of fun!'"
Kaylee described wrestling as "fun and aggressive."
And at the Minnesota State Championships, where ninth grader Lauren Elsemore, of Pine Island, was a contestant, her dad (who coaches boys wrestling) acknowledged that he had made a mistake in trying to keep his then-eight-year-old daughter from joining.
"I'm like, 'Dad, please let me wrestle,' and he's like, 'No, nope, nope,'" Lauren said.
"My initial response was, 'No, girls didn't wrestle,'" said Jason Elmore.
He relented. And before long, Lauren found a girls' program.
Braver asked, Lauren, "You would still wrestle boys from time to time? How do they react when you beat them?"
"Some of them would, like, cry and throw their head gear," said Lauren. "But now that there's, like, girls wrestling starting up, they're starting to like … what's a good word for that?"
"Respect! And they're not getting so upset."
As for respect, Skylar Little Soldier just took her second state title. And as for what's ahead? She said, "I have the same dream that I'm working towards every day: Olympic gold medalist."
For more info:
- Wrestle Like a Girl
- Photographs by Larry Slater (Instagram) and Tony Rotundo (Wrestlers Are Warriors)
Story produced by David Rothman. Editor: George Pozderec.
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