Tina George

(WOMENSENEWS)–Beginning today, about 60 young female wrestlers from across the country will compete in the Olympic trials in Indianapolis.

For wrestlers vying for one of the four slots on the U.S. Olympic women’s wrestling team, the chance to compete in Athens this August has been a long time coming.

“I expected it to be in the 2000 games,” saysTina George, a 25-year-old wrestler fromCleveland. “I was surprised that it wasn’t, but I knew it would happen one day.”

At 5 feet, 121 pounds, George has competed in six women’s World Championships, winning two silver medals. A Specialist in the U.S. Army and a member of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program, she is currently training for the Olympic trials in Los Angeles.

“I think that I like the sport because I’m kind of power hungry,” she says with a laugh. “The nature of wrestling is forcing your will upon someone else. As young girls we’re not taught to be aggressive. I like that fact that we can be physical and aggressive and still be women.”

Growing up, Wrestling Boys

Like many national female wrestlers, George grew up wrestling against boys in high school. As a junior at Cleveland Heights High School in 1996, she became interested in the sport after seeing a girl from a competing high school walk in for a match.

“I was actually scoring for the boy’s team and I saw a girl wrestling another guy and beating him,” says George. “I thought, ‘I could do that, too.'”

Indeed, at the high school level and college level, most female wrestlers have no other choice than to join the boy’s team.

“Girls wrestling boys isn’t ideal, but right now it’s all we’ve got,” says Gary Abbott, communications director at the USA Wrestling Association, which oversees the sport.

It’s estimated that there are about 3,800 female wrestlers in the United States at the high school level, according to the USA Wrestling Association, compared to about 250,000 boys wrestling in high school.

Only two states, Hawaii and Texas, sanction the sport and offer official high school all-girl tournaments. California, Washington, Michigan and Florida have also done much to promote the sport by holding unofficial all girl state tournaments.

To be sanctioned as a sport, each state’s high school activities organization–the body which runs the high school sports program–must set up guidelines and state championships.

Terry Steiner, coach of the women’s wrestling Olympic team, says states won’t sanction the sport until high schools coaches, students and parents ask for it.

“The schools say, ‘We need the numbers,'” says Steiner. “Our position is just give the girls the opportunity and then you’ll get the numbers.”

Without widespread state sanctioning of the sport, all states can offer is informal divisions and meets. Steiner points to the state of Washington for example, which doesn’t have a sanctioned girl’s wrestling, but offered a girls’ division earlier this year. The state saw 60 girls sign up to compete in the sport.

Local Organizations Offer Wrestling Opportunities

For many girls at middle school and high school level, the only opportunity to compete in national matches is through the United States Girl’s Wrestling Association, a grass roots organization based in Lake Orion, Michigan.

When Kent Bailo, founder of the association, threw his first tournament in 1997 in Lake Orion, Mich., 112 girls, ranging from grades 7 through 12 showed up. At his national tournament at Lake Orion High School last year, 600 girls competed in the event.

While many girls come from wrestling families–seeing their dads or brothers wrestle–or simply become interested in the sport on their own, Bailo believes that a new generation of women will take note of the sport.

“Soon we’re going to have moms who wrestled, who will be in the stands at wrestling meets,” says Bailo. “And they’re going to be talking about it in the kitchens with their daughters, showing that it’s a normal, legitimate sport.”

Elsewhere in the country, the sport is growing through small, informal clubs. Jonathan Mitchell, head of wrestling at J.P. McCaskey High School, runs an all-girl wrestling club in Lancaster, Penn., and organizes competitions around the state.

While he’s glad to see women’s wrestling reach the Olympic level, he’s concerned the media will focus on more popular female sports in Athens, like swimming and track.

“Wrestling in general has always been kind of the red-headed stepchild to sports like basketball,” he says. “Men’s wrestling still takes a backseat to sports and just because women’s wresting is going to be in the Olympics doesn’t mean it’s going to be very popular.”

Pushing for Collegiate Recognition

Despite gains in popularity at the high school level, women’s wrestling is largely unrepresented at the college level, with many wrestling advocates pushing for the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics to recognize the sport.

At present, only six colleges nationwide offer a varsity women’s wrestling team and only three other colleges offer wrestling clubs.

That the number is growing, however. When George headed to the University of Minnesota in 1998 to compete on their wrestling team, the university was the only school at the time to offer a women’s varsity program.

Now, with a handful of varsity teams, the biggest challenge facing female wrestlers is finding competition. At Cumberland College in Williamsburg, Ky., the varsity women’s team must travel as far away as Canada–a nine-hour van ride–for matches.

Kip Flanik, coach of the women’s wrestling team at Cumberland College, notes that other countries have done much to promote women’s wrestling. Canada has 19 college programs, as well as numerous high school programs. In Japan, which is expected to be a strong competitor in the Olympics, women’s wrestling is widely accepted.

“It’s treated as a martial art in Japan,” he says. “We’re still in our infancy with the program.”

Indeed, without widespread college support of the sport, many female wrestlers end up joining the men’s college team. Patricia Miranda, 24, another wrestler currently training in Colorado Springs for the Olympic trials, wrestled on the all-boy’s team at Stanford University.

She says she faced verbal abuse from her teammates, a common experience for female wrestlers competing at the college level.

“The other guys would say things like ‘you’re a joke, you don’t belong on the mat,'” says Miranda.

But her experience with her coach was overwhelmingly positive, and she believes the sport needs more recognition from college coaches, many of whom are reluctant to add women to their men’s teams.

“My coach was great,” says Miranda. “He didn’t over-protect me and there was no separate treatment from the men and that may seem like nothing, but it’s very progressive.”

Miranda, who’ll attend Yale Law School after the Olympic Games, also believes that more youth programs need to be place in the high school level.

“I’m not sure what the end goal is–it’s not like every girl needs to wrestle,” she says. “But they should have the opportunity to do it if they want.”

USA’s Wrestling’s Abbott agrees that there needs to be more attention paid to the sport at the high school and college level and believes growth will come from educating coaches, school administrators, as well as parents.

“We’ll get a bump of attention from the Olympics,” he says. “But it’s going to take a lot more to see the sport grow.”

Dakota Smith is a freelance writer in New York.

For more information:

USA Wrestling–Women’s Wrestling:

United States Girl’s Wrestling Association:

Pennsylvania Girls Wrestling: