Wrestling with stereotypes

Girls wrestling is gaining traction as one of the fastest-growing sports in Iowa as West High starts in inaugural girls wrestling season.

Amelia Stevens '23 and Emily Elizalde 
'23 joined West High's first girls wrestling team, gearing up with their game faces.

Maddy Smith

Amelia Stevens ’23 and Emily Elizalde ’23 joined West High’s first girls wrestling team, gearing up with their game faces.

At first glance, wrestling mats might look soft. That’s what people thought about female wrestlers. But if you take a closer look, both are extremely tough. It took decades of dodging stereotypes and doubters for girls to settle into the wrestling room. Forty years ago, female wrestlers took these steps for the first time.

Julie VanDyke who graduated from West in 1984 was one of the first female wrestlers in the US to wrestle at the junior and high school level along with Caroline Lee ’84. VanDyke wrestled in 1980-81 as a ninth grader at Central Junior High in Iowa City, around eight years after Iowa ratified the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 1972 recognizing the equal rights of every citizen regardless of their gender. However, this amendment didn’t have an immediate impact on society.

“It was a lot different around [the 1980s],” VanDyke said. “Iowa City had its first female firefighter, and she was fired for breastfeeding.” 

These types of discrimination in jobs and society transferred onto the wrestling mat and made it difficult for VanDyke and Lee to participate on the team. The duo experienced separation from the rest of their team during the season.

“There were guys that intentionally didn’t make weight, just so they wouldn’t have to wrestle us at meets,” VanDyke said. “They did not want us there.”

Although there was a stigma around girls wrestling, it didn’t stop VanDyke from joining the team.

“I think I may have wanted to do it partly because people said we couldn’t do it,” VanDyke said.

I think I may have wanted to do it partly because people said we couldn’t do it”

— Julie VanDyke

After VanDyke’s first year of wrestling, the Iowa City Community School District stopped supporting athletes participating in sports dominated by the other gender, such as girls participating in wrestling. This forced VanDyke to finish her wrestling career after just one season.

Despite the fact that VanDyke was only able to participate in wrestling for a year, she is fortunate of her accomplishments.

“I am proud of doing it. I don’t regret it at all,” VanDyke said. 

Before this year, girls who desired to participate in wrestling would have had to join the wrestling team, which is traditionally male-dominated. Similar to VanDyke, Amelia Stevens ’23, who wrestled in seventh grade at Northwest Junior High, had a tough season.

“It was kind of weird because the boys excluded me. It’s not like they purposely tried [to exclude], they didn’t really talk to me,” Stevens said. “I didn’t really feel like [a] major part of the team.” 

Due to the isolation that Stevens experienced while on the team, she decided not to participate in wrestling in eighth grade. 

“I had no friends on the team, so it was tough for me to be confident,” Stevens said.

One of the misconceptions in girls wrestling is the stereotypes that come along with it.

“People are so used to watching boys that when they see girls out there, they may mentally think ‘this is weird’ or ‘this is different,’” Kody Pudil, the assistant coach for the boys wrestling team said. “But if you watch the technique or if you watch the level of competition, it’s still there.”

Fortunately, with the opening of the girls wrestling program, the girls were able to turn their barriers into opportunity. 

“[The wrestling program is] something that we have definitely been missing as a school and even bigger as a state,” Pudil said. “All these girls that do want to compete never had the chance or the opportunity to [do so before].”

 

Kailey Gee

 

 

 

 

 

 

The new program will also transform the perspective of girls wrestling. 

“I feel like it’s going to change the mindset of people from seeing wrestling as a boys sport,” said Mami Selamani ’20, a wrestler for the girls team. “As the program progresses, I feel like more people are going to start joining. And that’s going to change how people see wrestling at West High and across Iowa too.”

I feel like it’s going to change the mindset of people from seeing wrestling as a boys sport”

— Mami Selemani '20

For Emily Elizalde ’23, this new program opened up another door for her. 

“I am looking forward to being introduced to the sport that I know nothing about [and] having a passion for it,” Elizalde said.

There are currently 24 girls signed up for the team, which makes it the largest girls wrestling team in Iowa. The team went from an enrollment of zero to the largest girls wrestling program in the state of Iowa in a span of a year.  

Girls wrestling numbers are increasing throughout the country. According to USA Wrestling, there are 27 straight years of growth in girls wrestling at the high school level. 

Justin Koethe, who graduated from West in 2012 and the head coach for the girls wrestling team, believes that the increased numbers of girls wrestling is a positive fact.

“[This program is] only a good thing. It just brings more recognition to the sport as a whole,” Koethe said. “I think we just need to continue to do things like this and give the girls just as many opportunities as the boys have.”