Monday, July 21, 2008

Breaking down barriers

In several ways, fourteen-year-old Karissa Avallone of Newkirk, Oklahoma is like many other teen-age girls in America. She is a varsity cheerleader, active in her church youth group and competes in beauty pageants. What distinguishes Karissa?
She wrestles. OH MY – how she wrestles!

Karissa is a two-time United States Girls Wrestling Association National Champion including being the reigning Middle School 94 pound title holder.

Karissa doesn’t always wrestle other girls. Her interscholastic wrestling has been as a member of, first, her middle school boy’s team and now her high school boy’s team. According to her dad, Tony, it started when she walked into the wrestling room after soccer practice to watch her brother. Says Karissa, “It looked like fun.”

It hasn’t been easy. Tony says, “… she was 6 and just getting her tail whooped by the boys but she just kept coming back for more. She won maybe three matches in her first three years of wrestling.” There have been other challenges. She has been teased because she wrestles. “I have been called names, and one boy told me to go home and bake some cookies.”

Karissa is among 5,000+ girls who will wrestle in high school this year – compared to over 250,000 boys. Almost half of the girls participating are in Texas and Hawaii – states with separate championships for girls and in California, which has girls only competitions but no state championship yet. Most of the rest must belong to boy’s teams if the wish to participate in “the world’s oldest and greatest sport”.

In a highly unscientific poll I asked a dozen parents of girls if they would encourage their daughters to wrestle. Eight of the parents have sons who wrestle. NOT ONE respondent said yes – if girls had to wrestle boys in order to participate. Four said they would let their daughters try wrestling if there was “girls only” competition.

One of the poll participants was my youngest daughter. She has a second-degree brown belt in Tae Kwon Do, so she is definitely not against girls (women) in martial arts. She, too, objected to the co-ed competition, but also raised weight control as an issue. Three other parents (moms) also mentioned weight control as a negative.

Many internet discussions of Title IX will suggest adding women’s varsity intercollegiate wrestling as a way to offer new athletic opportunities and as a way to comply with proportionality guidelines. This argument may well be putting two carts before the horse.

Troy Dannen is the new athletic director at the University of Northern Iowa – a school with a rich wrestling heritage that includes an NCAA Division I national team title. Prior to his hiring at UNI, he was executive director of the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union. He has a unique perspective on what it would take to add a women’s wrestling team.

I first asked Mr. Dannen, why a state like Iowa – with strong traditions in both wrestling and girl’s athletic opportunities did not offer “girls-only” wrestling.

“The thing you’ll find at the HS level is the creation of new sports is completely driven by the grass roots. We added soccer and bowling in Iowa the last ten years and neither were initially welcomed by the schools or even supported at the state level… In my six years as director of the IGHSAU I received one email asking us to sanction girls wrestling. I received dozens asking us to sanction gymnastics, rodeo – even field hockey. If girl’s wrestling is going to be a stand alone sport, its supporters cannot wait for that chance, they have to pursue it.”

His comments about adding women’s wrestling at UNI were very similar. “At UNI, we have to increase female opportunities. While wrestling would seem logical, the latest surveys of student interest don’t show a desire (for) wrestling. That is likely in some part due to the fact that they haven’t experienced it at the high school level…the key is the grass roots – kids and parents pushing the schools, who will then push for a state championship, which then builds the interest at the collegiate level.”

It becomes apparent that there is a need to encourage more girls to wrestle – and not just so colleges and universities can meet Title IX guidelines. Maggie Hendricks is an avid fan of all martial arts. In her blog, Chicks Heart Fights she comments on wrestling and MMA. Maggie has this to say about girls and wrestling, “…wrestling is a fantastic sport for young women. Wrestlers learn confidence, discipline and the value of hard work-these lessons are just as valuable for young women as they are for young men. Opening the sport to women will not only help young women, but the sport overall.”

So – how many girls other than those 5,000 in high school are wrestling. It’s hard to know – but definitely not enough. There are 204 girls entered at Junior Freestyle Nationals in Fargo this week – 59 of whom come from the three previously-mentioned states with girls vs. girls interscholastic competition (TX, HI and CA). Another 42 come from the states of Michigan (where the women’s US Olympic wrestling education center is located), Wisconsin and Kansas. Girls from just six states comprise almost half the entrants of the national championships.

I asked popular camp operator, Ken Chertow, how many girls attend his “girls only” camps. He said 20 – 30 girls between the ages of 8 and 18 participate.

Clearly, if we believe wrestling to be a valuable sport for all, we have to encourage more girls to participate. It’s just as clear that we need to change the perceptions that girls and parents have about wrestling. Even Tony Avallone reacted to Karissa’s initial request to try the sport with, “NO, it’s for boys.”

Women’s wrestling became an Olympic sport in 2004. Olympic medallists like Patricia Miranda and Sarah McMann give girls solid role models. While television coverage from Beijing is likely to be hit or miss, at best, many girls will have their first opportunity to see females wrestle.

However – as Troy Dannen suggests – we need to do more than that. We need to take matters in our own hands. Where possible, let’s add exhibition matches to high school and college meets. There is a women’s division at the NWCA/Cliff Keen National College Duals. Why not offer a girl’s clinic in conjunction with the event? What about a traveling demonstration team to visit elementary and middle schools (heck Duncan Yo-Yo used to do that).

Let’s get moving. Let’s make it easier to get more girls like Karissa in the sport.

No comments: