Monday, July 22, 2024

Opinion | U.S. high school girls wrestle their way to a barrier-breaking triumph

Opinion | U.S. high school girls wrestle their way to a barrier-breaking triumph

The four high school girls looked skittish as they stood before the school board in conservative Carlisle, Pa., in mid-April. Then they started speaking about why they wanted the board to vote to allow girls’ wrestling to become an official varsity sport at Carlisle High School. One shared how she was bullied to the point where she would hide in the bathroom after school. Joining the girls’ wrestling club this year gave her the confidence to take charge on and off the mat. Another girl watched her brother wrestle for years and wanted the chance to be part of the sport, too. Another joined the club at Carlisle after transferring from a school where she had to wrestle mostly boys since there was no girls’ team. The girls’ wrestling club in Carlisle gave her a space to learn and grow.

“With wrestling, we can teach young girls that they do not have to sit on the sidelines and watch boys have limitless opportunities while we remain limited,” junior Allison Coldren told the school board.I want girls to deny the stereotype of femininity and rename it for our own. To be strong, confident, courageous, hard-working and steadfast, because this is what it means to be a girl wrestler.”

A week after the girls spoke, the school board approved the high school girls’ wrestling team, joining more than 100 others across the state. A month later, Pennsylvania became the 39th state to make girls’ wrestling an official high school sport.

The rise of high school girls’ wrestling is one of the greatest stories in U.S. sports in recent years. In the 1990s, a girl who wanted to wrestle had only one choice: to join the boys. Many early female wrestling pioneers were taunted and booed in high school gyms, if they got the chance to wrestle at all. But, slowly, scenes such as the one in Carlisle played out. Girls would form a club team. Word would spread, and other schools nearby would do the same. Coaches, often former male wrestlers with daughters, would agree to coach. Programs would grow, and state athletic governing bodies would take notice. It also helped that societal views shifted to celebrate strong girls.

In 1998, Hawaii was the first to approve girls’ wrestling. Texas followed in 1999. But the vast majority of the 39 states that have embraced girls’ wrestling have approved the sport in the past few years, according to the site WrestleLikeAGirl. (It’s currently an “emerging sport” in Virginia, and D.C. is trying to grow its girls’ program.)

Next season, Ms. Coldren and her teammates will get the opportunity to compete for the first official Pennsylvania state championship in high school girls’ wrestling, something she noted would have been unthinkable only five years ago. The expansion of high school wrestling shows how to grow a sport — and change perspectives. It’s also a reminder that athletics, while far from perfect, have often played a key role in breaking down racial, gender, socioeconomic and disability barriers in U.S. society.

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