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IOWA CITY — University of Iowa has long been a leader in the wrestling world.
The Hawkeyes are coming off their 24th NCAA Division I team title and 37th Big Ten Conference crown. Fifty-five wrestlers have combined for 85 national titles. Eighteen have made 21 appearances on Olympic teams, including eight medalists and five gold.
Iowa ranks among attendance leaders, setting records when Grapple on the Gridiron was viewed by 42,287 fans at Kinnick Stadium and as host of the USA Olympic Team Trials in 2012 and 2016.
Former Hawkeye Simon Roberts was also the first Black NCAA champion, capturing the 147-pound title in 1957.
Now, Iowa has made another move to blaze a trail for others to follow. Athletics Director Gary Barta announced Thursday that it would become the first Power Five conference school to add women’s wrestling. Iowa is the third D-I school to start a women’s wrestling program, joining Presbyterian (S.C.) College and Sacred Heart (Conn.) University.
Iowa increased the number of sports programs to 22, including 14 for women. The plan is for a national coach search to begin this fall and for the program to begin competing for the 2023-24 season. This is the first women’s sport added at Iowa since soccer in 1996.
“I think everyone here is fully aware of our history and tradition on the men's side,” Barta said during Thursday’s news conference. “It's part of the fabric of Iowa, part of the University of Iowa's DNA when you look back historically at conference championships and national championships, Olympic gold medal, everything from Gable to Brands, anything in between.
“What you may not be as familiar with is the explosive emergence of women and girls’ wrestling not only across the country but also throughout our state.”
Iowa men’s wrestling coach Tom Brands noted the excitement surrounding the news about a sport that received emerging status by the NCAA last year.
Female Hawkeye Wrestling Club members and current Hawkeye wrestlers attended the announcement. Brands praised Deputy Director of Athletics and Senior Women’s Administrator Barbara Burke’s effort in making this a reality.
The effects will be wide ranging for both men and women.
“Women’s wrestling is awesome,” Brands said. “It's great for the women. There are little girls all across the country and the planet that are going to see this. It's that impactful.
“Let me tell you something about how it impacts the men. It makes the men's program stronger. Women's wrestling, from its inception, has always made men's wrestling better, it always has. There is a correlation there, and that's documented.”
Barta said Brands has been pushing for a women’s wrestling program since hosting the Olympic Trials. He also said he saw it on the radar. A new multi-million dollar wrestling facility expected to start construction in spring 2022 was designed to accommodate women’s wrestlers as well as the Hawkeyes men’s team and HWC.
“When we started designing that probably about two years ago we intentionally included women's facilities in that training center with the anticipation that at some point we might add that sport,” Barta said.
Barta said he has had conversations with other administrators about this possibility as female wrestling has blossomed at all levels. He said he can't predict if other programs will follow, but hopes that occurs. Brands said he thinks the Hawkeyes will have more company shortly.
"I think there are several that are close, without speaking for them," Brands said.
Women’s wrestling has grown in Iowa and across the country. Iowa has seen participation at the Iowa Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association girls’ state tournament grow from 87 participants at its inaugural event in 2019 to 250 the next year and 450 for a two-day competition in January.
The sport remains unsanctioned at the high school level in the state of Iowa.
“I think in the state of Iowa, it's a no-brainer,” Brands said. “I know there are people in this room that are working hard. Let's not skirt the issue. There's a little squabble going on in who's going to own it, which organization.
“Get over that squabble. You know what, partner up, let's get some common sense here and get a high school tournament for these girls. They've earned it enough, and they need it. I need it.”
Currently, 100 women’s wrestling programs exist. Twenty-five NCAA Division II schools and 20 in Division III have women’s programs. The NAIA, which has been ahead of the curve with women’s programs, has 40 and about a dozen junior college schools have women’s teams.
Rachel Watters wrestled in high school at Ballard and at the NAIA level. She has recently joined the HWC to continue her freestyle career and ranks high among senior-level competitors. Women had opportunities to train at the Olympic Training Center and for smaller schools but this is a huge boost in prominence.
“Anywhere I go it’s a new, interesting thing for people,” Watters said. “I’m usually the first one they met. Having a Power Five program in women’s wrestling shows this is a sport that is here to stay. We want to put it out there. We’re proud of this sport and want people to see it.”
Iowa will face a huge burden to do it right. As the first Power Five school with a women’s program, Iowa will create a blueprint for others to follow. Done correctly and women’s college wrestling could flourish. If not done right, the sport will suffer.
The roster is expected to consist of 30 to 35 wrestlers. Barta will rely on Brands as a sounding board, but once the women’s program is up and running it will be independent.
“Our program will be run the same,” Brands said of the men’s program. “The women will have their own practice times. The women will have their own head coach. The women will have their own structure. The women will run their program as they see fit.
“We will hire a coach, it will be the best coach in America. And look out because when these steps start being taken, we're at the first step here, but you look down the natural next steps, and that next step is the coach we hire, it's going to be their program.”
Brands continued, “The stakes are high for the new coach. We're going to wrestle the best competition in the United States. We're going to recruit unbelievable young talent that is already winning age group international championships and medals at the cadet and junior level. That's going to be our recruiting pool. Being the first is huge. Being the first is impactful. That's where we're at.”