Girls Wrestling: Programs push for OHSAA sanctioning
Taryn Martin won the 137-pound championship in Ohio's inaugural state girls wrestling tournament in February.
As a senior this winter, she would love to compete with her Olentangy Orange teammates in the sport's first sanctioned season by the Ohio High School Athletic Association. However, the chances of that happening so soon seem slim, at least in part because of financial considerations and the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
Of the 49 states that have sanctioned boys wrestling -- only Mississippi does not -- 28 have done the same for girls wrestling as of July 14, according to USA Wrestling, which has been posting updates on its Twitter page each time a state is added to the list.
In Ohio, athletes, coaches and others in wrestling circles are pushing for OHSAA sanctioning.
"I hope that it happens this year because I'm a senior and would like to see that movement, but I think it will happen really soon," said Martin, who finished 19-0 as a junior. "We have a lot of girls in our youth program, and it's just going to grow the sport as a whole.
"It's awesome that we're growing so fast. We had more than 20 girls last year and have more than 30 now."
Sally Roberts is the founder and executive director of Wrestle Like a Girl (WLAG), which has a mission of being able "to empower girls and women by using the sport of wrestling to become leaders in life." She said the time is right to put girls wrestlers on equal footing because the sport has grown rapidly across the country.
"Within the last few years, there has been an intentional effort to support girls wrestling from the grassroots to international level," said Roberts, a three-time national champion and a World Cup champion in 2003. "We have had coaches digging in and it has really shown with the increased numbers.
"The state sanctioning effort in Ohio will take a collaborative effort. Whether it comes from conversations with coaches and administrators or getting more kids out to wrestle, the girls really deserve this."
According to TrackWrestling.com, 474 girls competed in the state last season after 245 competed in 2018-19.
"(The) OHSAA ultimately will sanction it, (but we would) just like it to be sooner rather than later," said Orange coach Brian Nicola, whose team jumped from one wrestler -- Martin -- in 2018-19 to 21 last winter. "It all started last year, and after the season everything started to coalesce."
The inaugural girls state tournament, sponsored by the Ohio High School Wrestling Coaches Association, had 234 participants and was held Feb. 22 and 23 at Hilliard Davidson. Casstown Miami East won the title (149.5 points) and Orange placed second (122.5) as 83 teams scored.
Marysville coach Shawn Andrews, whose team finished third (99.5), sees plenty of growth potential for girls wrestling.
"I'm vice president of the Ohio High School Wrestling Coaches Association, and we're a stakeholder in the movement," said Andrews, who has led Marysville's boys program since 2007. "We started a girls team last year and we finished third in the state with 12 girls.
"There is a huge opportunity for growth. ... Wrestle Like a Girl has helped push the sport in a positive way, but it goes back to local levels of getting girls out, and the more that come out then the more chance you have of getting there. The numbers will lead to a change."
Another Orange coach, Vanessa Oswalt, is chair of the WLAG Ohio Taskforce. She said the goal is to bring awareness to the sport to help the sanctioning effort.
Part of that is happening on Twitter via @OHGirlWrestling, which uses the hashtag #SanctionOH.
"Ohio is one of the top wrestling states in the country, and I feel like the momentum is building," Oswalt said. "Our numbers (at Orange) ... will continue to grow. We're not building a new sport because they are already competing."
The inaugural girls state tournament had 95 schools competing, but only six had seven or more wrestlers.
Tyler Brooks, the OHSAA's administrator for wrestling, said there is not necessarily a "magic number" of girls wrestlers or girls programs needed for the sport to become sanctioned by the organization.
"Girls wrestling doesn't fit the traditional mold," he said. "Wrestling is different because (girls) are already participating in OHSAA wrestling (on boys teams). Really, what they want is to have a separate (girls) sport, and I think that's reasonable.
"(Girls wrestling supporters) want us to give them that magic number. Can we get 'X' number of participants or 'X' number of schools? There is no magic number, but the more we see an increase in numbers of participants and number of schools participating, the better chance they have of becoming sanctioned. With that newfound explosion of (girls) wrestlers, it makes it a feasible conversation."
Brooks said girls wrestling is on track to be sanctioned at some point.
"I think it's more a matter of when and being in the right financial components to make it sensible," he said. "I hate that financial ties have to be attached to it. Every sport should have a boys and girls participation in a perfect world, but it's not a perfect world right now.
"I would say pandemic aside and even if we had had the (boys) state tournament (last winter), the 2020-21 season would have still had it as a separate sport and its own tournament anyway. We want to see continued growth and also be able to have the right infrastructure to do things right. We have to do it in a financially responsible way."
Another issue: Can wrestlers compete during the pandemic?
"I'm worried about wrestling as a whole because of the physical contact and indoor nature of the sport," Brooks said.
For Noel Frye, a rising senior at Orange who was fourth at 160 in the inaugural girls state tournament, wrestling is about more than competition.
"It has made me a lot stronger mentally because when you are wrestling, you can't let things get into your head," she said. "You have to be present the entire time. That has helped me in school and in other sports."
The discipline and drive needed to succeed in the sport will help girls become leaders in their future endeavors, Roberts said.
"When they transition out of the sport, they will help strengthen us as a whole," she said.