IOWA CITY — At first glance, wrestling mats might look soft. That’s what people thought about female wrestlers, too.
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 United States to wrestle at the junior and high school level, along with Caroline Lee (Class of 1984). 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.
This amendment, however, 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.
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“I think I may have wanted to do it partly because people said we couldn’t do it,” VanDyke said.
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 VanDyke was only able to participate in wrestling for a year, she feels good about 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 coed team, which is traditionally male-dominated. Similar to VanDyke, West freshman Amelia Stevens, 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 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 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’ 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.
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“(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).”
The new program also will transform the perspective of girls’ wrestling.
“I feel like it’s going to change the mind-set of people from seeing wrestling as a boys’ sport,” said West senior Mami Selamani, 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.”
For freshman Emily Elizalde, this new program opened up another door.
“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 24 girls signed up for the West team, making it the largest girls wrestling team in Iowa. 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 is the head coach for the girls’ team, believes the increased numbers is a positive.
“(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.”