Wrestling is an Iowa obsession. But where are the girls?

State association sees too little support for sanctioning the sport for girls' teams

 

IOWA CITY — When she got to high school, Laurel Haverkamp didn’t try out for the wrestling team despite wrestling through junior high.

The team was male-dominated and highly competitive, she said. So she stayed off the mat for her first three years at West High in Iowa City.

This week, the 18-year-old was back on, spending hours Monday in the school’s wrestling room — running drills and jumping into a wrestler’s stance — with some 20 other girls who make up West’s first-ever girls’ wrestling team.

The athletes are some of nearly 500 girls wrestling this season in Iowa, where the sport has exploded in popularity among high school girls only recently, despite a rich state history of wrestling for boys.

About 480 girls are on team rosters this school year, according to Iowa USA Wrestling, up from just 40 girls across the state five years ago.

But while teams crop up in several school districts — including Iowa City, Decorah, Dubuque and Waverly-Shell Rock — girls’ wrestling in Iowa remains an unsanctioned sport.

Without sanctioning from the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union, which governs girls’ sports in Iowa, teams like West’s operate as club sports — complicating their funding and end-of-season recognition.

 

Girls’ wrestling is sanctioned in 20 states, according to the nonprofit organization Wrestle Like a Girl, which advocates for more opportunities for female wrestlers. Fourteen of those states — including Missouri and Kansas — sanctioned it in just 2018 or 2019.

Coaches, parents and athletes for years have been pushing the girls’ athletic union to sanction wrestling in Iowa — the only state with separate organizations governing girls’ and boys’ sports — West High boys’ wrestling assistant coach Kody Pudil said.

“It’s one of the biggest fights right now — and when I say ‘fight,’ it’s in a positive way,” said Pudil, who pushed to create West’s new girls’ team. “Where the state wants to see enough schools commit to girls’ wrestling, but a lot of schools are still unsure and waiting for it to be sanctioned before they fully commit to it.”

While the split in Iowa between boys’ and girls’ athletics has introduced hurdles, Iowa USA Wrestling women’s director Charlotte Bailey said momentum for the sport is increasing.

“While multiple states around us and across the country are putting it to a vote and creating this opportunity for girls to wrestle their peers, Iowa is in a position where the girls’ athletic union has created a multiyear process to consider whether or not they can be sanctioned,” Bailey said. “ ... I’ve been working on this process for 10 years, and in the last two years we’ve made tremendous progress. To me, it’s finally moving.”

The fight for sanctioning

The athletic union’s process of sanctioning a new sport requires 15 percent of district superintendents or athletic directors — about 50 — to commit to sponsoring a team. The process, Director Jean Berger said, was developed three years ago in response to requests to sanction several sports — including wrestling, rugby, competitive cheer, archery, lacrosse and dance.

She’s received 43 letters of support for wrestling from Iowa schools, she said, but only 18 have met the union’s criteria to count toward the 50-district goal.

“The 43 I’ve gotten have just said, ‘we support it,’” Berger said. “I’ve called back (or emailed) back to superintendents to ask if that level of support meant they were going to sponsor a separate girls’ team for their district. Of those that have replied, it’s 18.”

Berger said the athletic union wants to be sure any sanctioned sport is sustainable. Once girls’ wrestling comes under the purview of the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union, the teams would be allowed to compete only against other girls, she said. But they could practice with boys.

 
 

About 90 schools in Iowa have fewer than five girls each who wrestle, Berger said, raising questions about how far those girls would need to travel to compete against other girls.

“I know the goal is girls wrestling girls, but if you only have a few girls on your team, you have to practice against the boys,” she said. “There’s nobody else around you. If there’s nobody around you, how do you sustain that?”

A need to meet changing expectations

For decades, the expectation of Iowa’s top female wrestlers was to join boys’ teams.

That’s what Bailey’s daughter, Jasmine — a three-time Women’s Collegiate Wrestling Association national medalist — did when she was at West nearly a decade ago, when fewer than 40 girls were wrestling competitively in Iowa.

“People all over the country were doing it, that was 2010 and 2011,” Charlotte Bailey said. “For many years before that, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, girls were wrestling on boys’ teams in Iowa. I call them ‘boys’ teams,’ but I hesitate to call them that — because they only had one team.”

In competitions, there were boys who would refuse to wrestle a girl, Bailey recalled, cutting down her daughter’s time on the mat. Others would try to injure her and force her off the team, she said.

“There were definitely parents and coaches who made it clear they didn’t think our daughters should be there,” Bailey said. “It’s become more obvious now — it’s just an opportunity to participate in a sport and to develop yourself as an individual and an athlete, and there really isn’t an advantage to denying half the population an opportunity.”

Waverly-Shell Rock wrestling coach Eric Whitcome seconded Bailey. He started a girls’ wrestling team last school year at his northeast Iowa high school, which has hosted the girls’ state wrestling tournament.

“Why wouldn’t you (sanction) if you’re trying to offer the best possible opportunities for females in the state of Iowa, and you see participation growing in a sport like this?” Whitcome asked. “And in a sport that’s been dominated by one gender for hundreds of years; it’s been dominated by men.

“You have a sport that, all of a sudden, participation is doubling among females. Why wouldn’t you get behind that and say, this is no longer just a sport for men — but a sport for females as well?”

 
 

Without official recognition, the girls’ state championship is unofficial and some school district officials have been unable or unwilling to fund girls’ teams, Bailey said.

“Without the sanctioning, it’s the postseason recognition that really falls short,” she said. “And since some of these girls are national champions and have put in a lot of time, it’s hard to see that.”

Although having a separate governing body for girls’ athletics has introduced challenges for girls’ wresting in Iowa, Bailey said it also primes the state to introduce changes that would benefit female wrestlers.

The athletic union could write rules that allow girls to weigh-in in their uniforms rather than their underwear, she said, or let them wear ponytails or braids during competition.

“We could let girls look like girls while they’re wrestling,” Bailey said.

An opportunity to get rid of the stigma

The girls’ wrestling team at West practiced for hours Monday afternoon, running laps around the school’s wrestling room beneath nine banners proclaiming the boys’ team was state champions or runners-up in recent years.

Having their own team has made the sport more accessible to girls like Haverkamp, who said it was easy to be intimidated by an “intense” culture around boys’ wrestling.

“Not to shoot down boys’ wrestling, but being with other girls, it’s just a different environment,” Haverkamp said. “Everyone’s working really hard, and I’m so proud of everyone. Everyone is learning together, everyone is very supportive. … It’s a lot goofier than a boys’ practice, and it’s nicer.”

Nearby, Manal Duah, a 17-year-old who had never wrestled until this year, laughed loudly as she and another teammate struggled with each other, gasping for breath after two hours of practicing shots, sprawls and takedowns.

In a burst of energy, Duah fended off her opponent and yelled: “I’m strong!”

Without a girls’ wrestling team, coach Pudil said many girls were hesitant to wrestle because of negative connotations that came with boys and girls competing in the high-contact sport.

“You get rid of a lot of that stigma that was going around, with boys and girls wrestling each other,” he said. “Having the opportunity to compete against other females, I think a lot of girls have always had interest in it — but now actually have an avenue to pursue that.”

Emma Barker — who spent most of Monday’s practice wrestling her brother, Ashton, who medaled at the Class 3A state wrestling tournament last season — spent time on the boys’ wrestling team at Liberty High last school year. Before then, she said, she assumed wrestling was only for boys.

At West, she’s practicing with both the boys’ and girls’ teams and intends to dominate girls’ state wrestling this season.

“I would have wrestled in kindergarten if I didn’t think it was a guys’ sport,” Barker, 15, said as practice ended. “This is awesome — I see most of these girls in here, all of them, they can go to college and get scholarships. They can grow at this if they keep with it.”