Female Wrestlers Need Fair Competition in PA

Wrestling is gaining popularity among women and girls. So why isn't Pennsylvania on the bandwagon to give its fighting females fair opponents?

With women’s wrestling garnering national media attention, from Rachel Hale becoming the first high-school girl to nab a Vermont state title to an Iowa high’s male wrestler refusing to wrestle a girl, it’s clear this long-male-dominated sport is gaining momentum among women.

But Pennsylvania seems to have missed the bandwagon—some other states even have dedicated girls’ and women’s state tournaments.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Girls can be tough, too. Those interested in wrestling shouldn’t have to sit out (High school boys often forfeit to girls rather than wrestle them—I mean, can you imagine the ridicule they could face for losing to a girl?) or compete unfairly, since boys naturally gain more upper body mass at a certain age, giving them an edge in the sport.

In fact, this weekend just may mark they Keystone State’s first ever female high-school wrestler to qualify for state-level competition—and she’ll have to beat boys to get there—if West Mifflin High School junior Becky Barker places in the top five at the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League tournament. She became the first girl ever to qualify for that WPIAL tournament last month.

This comes few weeks after an Iowa teen grabbed headlines for forfeiting instead of wrestling a girl, citing religious reasons.

But Vermont champ Hale’s male counterparts respect her abilities on the mat, according to a recent New York Times article. The boy she beat in her weight class for the title told the Times: “She deserves to wrestle. It’s not like she didn’t earn it.”

Girls who are interested in wrestling shouldn’t be barred just because there are too many who aren’t—and not enough girls to make all-female leagues in some places.

“You can get really hurt,” one Philly Mag coworker—a wrestler himself—tells me. His daughter’s already expressed an interest in the sport, before even turning 10 years old. “I’m not sure if I’m going to let her.”

Ann Peery Ritter, president of the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, comes from a long line of wrestlers: her father was a three-time national champion at Oklahoma State and each of her two brothers won three national championships at the University of Pittsburgh. But she wasn’t able to wrestle because when she was younger, there were no programs for girls, nor did girls participate in boys’ clubs.

She agrees that wrestling boys at a certain age and weight class is just too much and is excited to see interest growing among women.

“It’s not fair competition for those who are actually interested in being in scholastic or collegiate wrestling to have to wrestle males all the time,” Ritter says. “There are lots of states where women have not qualified to wrestle at the state level simply because the males have more experience and get to wrestle more.”

One Pennsylvania college coach, Terry Fike, has the right idea. He’s looking to push for more interest in girls’ and women’s wrestling. In 2007, he started a women’s club wrestling team at Lock Haven University, and many of his wrestlers have ranked nationally in the last few years.

But they can’t stay in PA to compete—ever.

“We’re road warriors,” Fike says of his small team, which usually has between four and eight athletes. “We’re always traveling. We’ve been all over the country. In Pennsylvania, we’re currently lagging behind the rest of the country—all the women’s teams are spread out in the Midwest and California.”

The team frequents Canada often, where women’s wrestling is big—especially in Ontario.

In a few days, they’ll make a spring-break trip all the way to Bulgaria to wrestle with the women’s national team there. When Fike returns, he has big plans to grow the program, recruit for it and advertise it.

“I see it picking up. I can tell by the number of e-mails that I get about our program … and just the general amount of attention we’re getting, and we’ve done very little to recruit or advertise so far,” Fike, who’s coached wrestling for 30 years, says.

He sees Lock Haven as a hotbed for women’s wrestling in Pennsylvania—and even on the East Coast.

“The particular interest of mine is developing women’s wrestling in the East at the high school and collegiate level, because women want to wrestle women, and women do it for the same reason men do,” he says. “They are just as physical, they train just as hard, so we need to give them the opportunity to do it in a venue that’s fair.”

Amen, Coach.