Iowa Hawkeyes

Iowa should lead the way in female wrestling

Ogden column: Interest in high schools, colleges at all-time high

Girls wrestlers at Iowa City West work out during a practice in December. West is one of many high schools in Eastern Io
Girls wrestlers at Iowa City West work out during a practice in December. West is one of many high schools in Eastern Iowa embracing a girls-only team. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Gary Barta didn’t say much about women’s wrestling when asked about it last week.

But maybe, just maybe, he said enough.

“The care I take in talking about adding a sport is we have to come up with additional revenue,” he said while talking about a variety of topics last Monday. “We don’t want to take money from existing sports.”

That’s fair. But women’s and girls’ wrestling is riding a wonderful wave right now. Growth and excitement in the sport is at an all-time high.

The building of a new wrestling facility near Carver-Hawkeye Arena got the green light last week. Let’s make sure it has, at the very least, a women’s locker room. Iowa already has women in the Hawkeye Wrestling Club, so it’s maybe already part of the plan.

“When we build any facility, including a wrestling training facility, we probably should build it with the potential for growth in the facility for the future,” Barta said.

Then, with a smile, he said “so I’ll just leave it at that without predicting anything.”

That smile seemed like a wink and a nod. I hope it was.

Iowa — as in the state of and the University of — needs to step up and be the leader in this version of a sport that is recognized as the oldest competitive sport in the world, one that has defined this state as much as any.

We are wrestling.

But, you know what. We also are women’s and girls’ sports.

The Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union first sponsored girls’ basketball in 1920, but the six-player version had been around the state before that. The state tournament was televised in 1951, one of the first sports on state TV, and it ended up being televised in nine states. Iowa was known for this version of girls’ basketball from coast to coast.

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The IGHSAU needs to sanction girls’ wrestling as soon as possible. There were 376 girls entered in this year’s unofficial state tournament, nearly 300 more than the first year.

Iowa, Iowa State and UNI — as well as the multitude of small-college programs in the state (many of which already have taken this leap) — need to offer it as a varsity program. Be the trendsetter.

NCAA divisions II and III have officially given women’s wrestling “Emerging Sport” status, a great first step.

“With opportunity comes growth and with growth comes numbers,” National Women’s Coach Terry Steiner said when that news was announced. “We are seeing now what opportunity can do to fuel growth. This decision gives complete legitimacy for the sport, and shows that women’s wrestling is a fully functioning sport in our nation.”

Steiner, for those who don’t remember, was a former Hawkeye national champion. One of his teammates was Iowa Coach Tom Brands, who said last week he supports women’s wrestling “100 percent.”

“Emerging Sports status is a very important step and that step needs to happen and that’s when we start having conversations about is it going to be in these specific institutions,” he said.

Those conversations should end with a resounding “yes.” This state — and specifically the University of Iowa — need to be its biggest and loudest champion.

“I know that Gary Barta is well aware of the popularity of women’s wrestling,” Brands said. “We have a boss, (Deputy Director of Athletics) Barbara Burke, who is a huge fan of our women’s wrestling.

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“With that being said, there is still a long way to go before you even talk about it.”

Let’s hope it’s not too long. Let’s hope this fire doesn’t diminish before somebody takes that bold first step toward getting this done.

“It is exciting to see the growth and participation by young women,” Burke wrote in an email late last week. “As far as girls and women in sports, we absolutely want to continue to be leaders and provide quality opportunities.

“We pay close attention to trends nationally and are consistently evaluating options that make sense for Iowa.”

But, she also noted, “we are not considering adding any sports” at this time.

Adding sports is no easy task. It takes more than a wink and a nod or a snap of the fingers. But colleges and universities have been battling for years to meet Title IX guidelines. Men’s sports have been dropped in the name of Title IX, sports like wrestling.

This is a gift just waiting to be unwrapped by the NCAA, by the IGHSAU and by this state.

Let’s rip it open.

Comments: (319) 368-8696; jr.ogden@thegazette.com

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