Fight Like a Girl: The New Wave of High-School Wrestling

Just three years after the founding of the first girls’ high-school wrestling team in Pennsylvania, nearly 200 squads now compete. Inside the fastest-growing sport in the state.

girls wrestling high school

Clockwise from top left: Anya Abel, Haley Campion, Eliana Riva, Jaletsy Melendez, Maya Chojnowski, Olivia Urban, Lauren Capriotti, Ollie Sloan, Adriana Pagan, Sophia Santiago, Nolah Flynn, and Ruby Ogolo / Photography by Hannah Love Yoon

The first thing that hits me when I walk into the high-school gym is the smell, an acrid mix of stale sweat, dirty feet and hormones. It’s the sort of smell that feels oddly specific to teenagers, especially teenagers in the middle of a grueling two-and-a-half-hour wrestling practice.

The gym, one of three at Pennsbury High’s Fairless Hills campus, is cavernous and vaguely institutional, with dingy brick walls, a high row of squat windows, a warren of pipes and ducts overhead, and a huge accordion wall divider that’s now stretched out and papered with words that range from motivational — Strength, Leadership, Discipline — to menacing: “If you’re looking for easy, you’re in the wrong room.”            

To be honest, I do feel like I’m in the wrong room. I’ve never seen wrestling in person before, and it’s been 20 years or so since I was in a high-school gym, or was part of an organized sport’s practice, or was around so many teenagers. There are about 40 of them here on this late Friday afternoon in mid-November, the first official day of the 2023-’24 high-school wrestling season. Each wrestler has been matched with a sparring partner, and I watch as they face each other, bent at the waist, arms outstretched to rest on one another’s shoulders, heads nearly touching. When they move — slowly and deliberately at first, lions circling their prey, then pouncing in sudden sharp bursts — it looks as though they’re performing some ancient ritualistic dance. Which, if you consider that wrestling has been around longer than Jesus, I suppose they are.

“That’s our best one, over there in the purple shorts,” says Craig Williams. He’s the head girls’ wrestling coach here, a former high-school defensive lineman with a round baby face, towering beside me at the edge of the gym.

He points to a duo sparring in the center of the mat. I don’t know what I’m expecting, but it’s certainly not a 112-pound girl, blond and tan and gorgeous in tiny lilac shorts. Her name is Anya Abel, and she’s grappling with another girl, their arms laced together, foreheads touching, ponytails sprouting out of protective headgear that looks like a cross between a jockstrap and earmuffs. (It’s supposed to prevent cauliflower ear.) Coach Craig and I watch as the other girl yanks Anya down to the mat by her shoulders. It looks painful, shockingly violent. But the two quickly stand up and practice another move, and this time, both splay out on the mat.

There are other girls sparring, too, and Coach Craig calls them all over. The pack comes running toward us in one big wave, and suddenly I’m faced with a wall of 11 teenage girls looking at me expectantly. It’s a little intimidating.

girls wrestling

Sophia Santiago executes a takedown.

On the mat, the girls were fierce, angry, tough. But standing before me, flushed and sweaty from their practice, they just look like normal teenagers: braids, braces, sprinklings of pimples, an endearing air of awkwardness.

“These girls,” says Coach Craig, “are making history.”

Craig talks a lot about history and the making of it. It seems overblown, the idea that history is being made in this smelly suburban gym, but he’s not wrong. Last May, the PIAA, which governs middle-school and high-school athletics, finally sanctioned girls’ wrestling, lending it legitimacy, structure, exposure and much-needed support. The girls standing in front of me — along with hundreds of others from 185 schools across the state — are part of the first official girls’ wrestling teams in Pennsylvania.

So yeah, history.

It’s not just Pennsylvania that’s getting on board. Forty-four states across the country have sanctioned girls’ wrestling, up from only six in the 2017-’18 season and 26 in 2021. The flood of growth over the past six years lies in stark comparison to the molasses-like trickle that preceded it: Hawaii, the first state to sanction girls’ wrestling, did so way back in 1998. (A year later, Texas — yes, Texas! — did the same.)

Other numbers are climbing, too. According to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, 112 girls participated in high-school wrestling in 1990. In the 2016-’17 season, that hovered around 14,500. Last season, the National Federation of State High School Associations reported that 49,127 girls participated in high-school wrestling. The number seems staggering — until you consider that it’s 256,466 for boys. Still, progress.

That this groundswell of support and exposure is happening just at this moment is fitting. Many cultural observers deemed 2023 the “Year of the Girl,” a time when America celebrated, dissected, romanticized — and monetized — girlhood. As Rebecca Jennings pointed out in a piece for Vox, the very word bled into everything, from throwaway TikTok terms like “girl dinner” (making a meal of a roughly assembled mix of squirrely things like nuts, bread and cheese) and “girl math” (a roundabout rationalization of impulse buys) to bizarre micro-trends like Clean Girl makeup and Vanilla Girl style. There was the Barbie movie that hailed women’s empowerment and was the highest-grossing film of the year, and the juggernaut world tours of Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, which quite literally boosted the entire global economy. Read that last part again.

But even as the lens through which we see girlhood widens, rarely do most of us see it like this: a girl wrenching someone down by the shoulders, wrapping her arms around that opponent’s head, pinning her to the ground, holding her while she struggles to break free, grunting, angry, ferocious. Furious. (Fury also seems fitting at this moment, as women’s rights hang terrifyingly in the balance. Sure, 2023 was the year of Barbie, but it was also the year of Kate Cox’s doomed pregnancy.)

I look at the girls facing me, these teenagers who have staked out spots on mats that have typically only ever had space for boys — who are making history right under our noses, whose legs bloom with purple bruises, and I have a million questions: Does this hurt? Are you scared when you’re out there? Does the gym always smell this bad? And, finally, why?

But before I can ask anything, music starts playing loudly from the other half of the gym, on the opposite side of the dividing accordion wall. It’s muffled, but you can hear the poppy, staccato beats and pulsing bass. It’s from the other sport that practices at this time, in this gym.


When you grow up on a Christmas tree farm in a small town plopped on the outskirts of the Lehigh Valley (in the pre-Google ’80s and early ’90s, no less), it can be tough to see beyond what’s immediately in front of you. So while Brooke Zumas loved wrestling from an early age — her dad was a huge fan of the sport; he ran drills with her in the basement and took her to matches at Lehigh University — she didn’t see girl wrestlers on the mat. And so, to her, they didn’t exist.

“I thought, well, I guess this is something we don’t do or can’t do,” the 39-year-old says. “It didn’t cross anybody’s mind to contact a coach or go to a practice. This is a boy’s sport. That’s what it is. It’s just a fact.” Zumas saw girls in other sports, so she gave them a shot: cross-country, field hockey, gymnastics, all of which were fine. But they weren’t wrestling. She didn’t find an opportunity to participate in the sport until college, when she discovered a women’s wrestling club run out of Philly. By then, it was too late for her to do anything more than practice for fun.

That’s so sad, I tell her. All that time wasted. She laughs, which almost makes it sadder.

“It’s so interesting. I wasn’t sad at the time, because I literally couldn’t picture another way. Once you see it, that’s what really fuels you, because then it’s like, ‘Oh, I do want to be doing that. You mean I could be doing that? I could have been doing that this whole time?’”

At the end of 2019, Zumas, then a high-school wrestling coach in Allentown (with boys and girls on her team!), joined a group working to get girls’ wrestling sanctioned by the state, making it an official sport. What they needed sounded simple — 100 Pennsylvania schools to commit to having a girls’ wrestling team — but it took three years of advocacy and education to hit the number.

“In some ways, it’s remarkable it was that fast,” Zumas says. “We publicly launched the initiative, SanctionPA, in March 2020, a week before COVID, and we hit our hundredth school on February 14, 2023.” On July 1st, the PIAA made it official, and Pennsylvania became the 39th state to recognize girls’ wrestling.

“The states that are coming on board now have been a little bit later to the game, not because there hasn’t been desire or interest from the athletes, but because there had to be a culture change, and there had to be adult advocates working on behalf of what they knew the girls and women needed,” says Sally Roberts, the co-founder and CEO of Wrestle Like a Girl, a national advocacy organization for girls and women in wrestling. In other words: Getting girls to be comfortable with wrestling is easy, but getting adults to be comfortable seeing it? That’s a tougher fight to win.

girls wrestling

Eliana Riva gets some braiding done.

“I think that the fabric of America, the fabric of our society, tends to view girls and women as being a certain thing,” Roberts continues. “To step back and realize that girls can be whatever they want to be, and to marry those concepts of independence, self-sufficiency and physicality — it’s a new way of seeing, and it’s a new way of being. And different parts of the country have adjusted and accepted better.”

Janna Christine, the girls’ wrestling coach at Boyertown High School in Berks County (three girls on the team), sees the sport’s acceptance as a community issue: “We hosted something, and there were girls and guys standing outside the gymnasium peering in, whispering under their breath. It’s like a novelty.” She tells me that schools have been showcasing a few girls’ wrestling matches during intermission at the boys’ meets to slowly introduce people to the idea. “And you have older people in the stands going, ‘This is ridiculous. Why would girls even want to wrestle?’ The older generations are definitely having a hard time wrapping their heads around it.” (I test her theory and ask my mom if she would ever have let me wrestle. “No,” she answers automatically. “That’s revolting.”)

It took Melissa Culpepper some time to adjust, too. It came out of left field, this whole wrestling thing — her daughter, Sophia Santiago, announcing one day in eighth grade that she’d joined the team. She’d always been athletic, but wrestling?

“I was like, girls can’t wrestle. You can’t go wrestle a boy!” Culpepper says. There are inappropriate-looking moves, she warned, arms and legs and bodies tangling up like sweaty pubescent pretzels. But wrestling kept Sophia busy and out of trouble, and it gave her an outlet. Like so many kids, she’d emerged from COVID with depression and anxiety, two years lost.

“I started wrestling mostly because I had bad anger issues and I didn’t really know how to control them,” Sophia tells me, an amazingly mature explanation for a 16-year-old. A lot of her teammates at Pennsbury say the same — that the sport has helped cool the boiling, roiling emotions that come with growing up, and that it’s helped them manage clinical depression, anger and anxiety.

“COVID was a trauma,” says Stephany Coakley, the senior associate athletic director for mental health, wellness and performance at Temple University. “Trauma affects your mood.” And your mental health: Research found that depression and anxiety levels in youth doubled during the pandemic, and CDC data showed that almost three in five teenage girls felt persistent sadness in 2021 — the highest rate in a decade. Of course, the isolation and disruption of COVID played a large part in this, but those numbers had been climbing steadily even pre-pandemic.

Coakley attributes some of this to social media: “We have a lot of connections, but not a lot of connection.” She talks about how social media stokes comparisons and facilitates online bullying. This could come across as yet another fearmongering adult villainizing social media, but I’m also hearing it from one teenage girl standing with me in the high-school hallway, speaking so frankly that I wonder if she’s forgotten I’m writing a magazine story about all of this.

“I was bullied by people my entire life, which is not surprising,” she says so matter-of-factly that I want to cry. When I ask her why that isn’t surprising, she answers as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world, which I guess it is: “Kids are mean. Kids are really mean.” She found wrestling, and it seems to have saved her, just a little bit.

“It’s my way of feeling free,” says Eliana Riva, 15, who is one of three Pennsbury girls returning to the team from last year, along with Anya and Sophia. Her braids are tinged with teal like she’s part mermaid, her huge blue eyes are fringed by long eyelashes, and her braces are linked by pink rubber bands. A few of the girls talk about how they love the sport’s physicality and conditioning, and others say wrestling lets them get out their anger and aggression.

“What I’ve recognized is that when kids join wrestling, they’re running from something or they’re running to something, and the answer is usually themselves,” says Wrestle Like a Girl’s Sally Roberts. “Having the opportunity to get that physiological expression so they can understand their mind, body and heart interaction is powerful.”

I watch the girls as they stand in front of me and answer my questions, swaying nervously when they speak, twisting corners of their t-shirts into tight corkscrews, giggling when they accidentally tell me the wrong age. (“Wait, did I say I’m 18? I’m 17! Why did I think I was 18?”) They’re achingly familiar and foreign all at once. I, too, battled depression and anxiety in high school, but teenagers didn’t openly talk about that back then, in the late ’90s. I certainly wouldn’t have announced it in front of my teammates in tennis, a sport I played mostly for the cute flouncy skirt.

Of course, the stigma around mental health has waned in recent years; plenty of athletes — Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, Michael Phelps, our own Lane Johnson — have spoken openly about their struggles. But the way these teenage girls talk about anger and sadness and aggression as if they aren’t dirty words or signs of failure still bowls me over, and I don’t even think they realize what this is. That this, too, is strength.

There’s a Greek vessel in a museum in Manchester, England. It’s in startlingly good condition considering that it’s about 2,600 years old, its rounded terra-cotta shoulders and handles still intact. A scene painted on it depicts the female hero Atalanta — a mythological badass who upended gender stereotypes even back then — wrestling a man. They mirror each other, same height, same lunging pose, same outstretched arms. It reminds me of the first time I saw Anya grappling with her teammate. These two aren’t equally matched, though. Atalanta has no muscle definition, while the guy looks like he could be on the cover of Men’s Health.

But a closer look reveals that Atalanta is the one in control. She’s grasping the man’s wrist with one hand, and her other arm is planted firmly around his side, ready for a takedown. Only one sentence was written about the match, since women’s sports lacked coverage even back in ancient Greece: “At the games held in honor of Pelias, Atalanta wrestled with Peleus and won.”

This could be a tidy end of the story. Girls are badasses, they’re wrestling, they’re sometimes going up against the guys, they’re sometimes winning. Fin. But if you ask most advocates for girls’ wrestling, this isn’t the end goal.

For WLAG’s Roberts, it’s all about making wrestling a completely sex-segregated sport. Part of her reasoning comes from gender expectations and how kids experience the sport: Boys are expected to beat girls, full stop.

“Man, if the boy loses to a girl, that is infringing on his masculinity. And if he beats a girl, that’s what he was supposed to do. And those girls on the boys’ teams — if they beat a girl, there’s minimal celebration. But if they beat a boy, it is a jubilant celebration,” she says. “Girls need a place to have sisterhood, boys need to have a place to have brotherhood — where they can have that same physicality.” 

As I sit in another of Pennsbury’s gyms a week or so after that first practice, I can see what she means. I’m here for Wrestle Fest, an event the school puts on for families new to the sport, with demonstrations, exhibition matches and “wrestle-offs,” which determine who competes in a particular weight class. It’s the morning after Thanksgiving, and the kids are milling around the gym in sweats and Christmas pajama pants, girls with tight braids, boys with tufts of hair flopping over their eyes like the forelocks of alpacas. Some still have the soft roundness of childhood, some are solid and muscular, and others are all sharp, skinny angles, a jumble of knobby knees and jutting shoulder blades.

girls wrestling

In the front row, Anya Abel and Sophia listen to a pep talk.

The girls were supposed to wrestle after the boys today, but the boys’ head coach wraps up his information session early, so they’re squeezed in first. There’s no fanfare, and I only know the girls’ matches are starting because Coach Craig tells me. This doesn’t seem weird to me — who knows how wrestling works? — until it’s time for the boys. Someone with a microphone announces their impending entrance dramatically, and an army of boys comes sprinting in like soldiers taking a battlefield, a Metallica song blasting in the background. They jog around in a giant circle before breaking into somersaults and rolls. It’s all very exciting. 

“Why didn’t this happen with the girls?” I shout to Coach Craig over the music. His explanation makes sense: It’s only the first official season for the girls, and, well, there’s just not that many of them yet — only 16, not enough for a junior varsity team — so today, the girls were mainly doing exhibition matches instead of competing for a spot in a certain weight class.

Speaking of battlefields: The sport’s fixation on weight seems to be a minefield, especially when you’re talking about teenage girls who are already at the highest risk for developing eating disorders. Not that boys are immune; research estimates that around 33 percent of boys in weight-class sports suffer from disordered eating. (A quick primer: Wrestlers are grouped into weight classes; for girls in Pennsylvania, there are 13 classes that rise in six-pound increments, starting at 100 and topping out at 235. All wrestlers are weighed in weekly at practice and then an hour before a tournament by an official. If you’re above your weight, you forfeit the match.)

Crazy stories abound about wrestlers cutting weight — coaches cranking up the heat in wrestling rooms to sauna temperatures, wrestlers working out wearing plastic trash bags to squeeze out excess water weight, diuretic abuse, fasting for days. Still, plenty of people I speak to claim that the sport’s constant monitoring of the scale isn’t all bad.

“The girls are weighing in and out of practice, so we can see when their body fat is dipping too low, or if they’re losing their period, or if their energy level is just too low,” Janna Christine says of her girls’ team at Boyertown. “They have people coaching them the whole way through: How are you feeling? What’s your body telling you? Do we need to go up a weight class? So it’s not about getting as small as humanly possible.” The PIAA has a 24-page manual on weight control with regulations designed to keep wrestlers healthy: a minimum body-fat percentage, certified minimum weights that prevent them from dropping to a lower weight class, routine hydration and body-fat testing.

Again, I think back to when I was in high school, at the height of ’90s diet culture. I was consumed by an eating disorder then, wishing to be so small I could disappear. I search for this part of myself in the Pennsbury girls — for a part of them that only wants to be skinny and invisible — but I don’t see it. These girls, they want to be strong.

I think all guys should treat the girls as if we are one of them, because we can take a fall; we can take a hit just like them. We’re in the sport for that reason.”

There’s Nolah Flynn, a sophomore with a white-blonde ponytail that streams down her back. She’s a rugby player, wrestling to stay in shape in the off-season. There’s Jaletsy Melendez, a junior who was on the dance team last year, who likes how wrestling puts her in touch with her body, how it moves, what it needs. There’s Lily, a junior who’s finally able to participate in sports after struggling with arthritis for years.

Still, wrestling is structured by weight, and till enough girls across all weight classes join, some of them will have to practice with the guys. Here, that includes Maya Chojnowski, an 18-year-old senior and first-time wrestler who also throws for the track team, skis, and races motorcycles. A few months ago, she did a bodybuilding competition. I’m in awe of her. She wrestles at 170 and spent the pre-season wrestling mostly boys. 

“Half of them were scared they were going to hurt me, and they were being super-easygoing, like, ‘Oh, I’m not going to grab you,’” she says. “But then there were some guys in the last couple weeks of pre-season who started kicking my butt.” Maya shows me a constellation of splotchy bruises on her leg. I’m horrified, but she laughs them off. This, to her, is progress: “I think all guys should treat the girls as if we are one of them, because we can take a fall; we can take a hit just like them. We’re in the sport for that reason.”

“A lot of people underestimate girls,” says Sophia, Melissa Culpepper’s daughter. “I’ve witnessed it at Anya’s matches. As she was warming up, a lot of people on the side were like, ‘Oh, this is an easy match. It’s a girl.’ And Anya went and pinned them.” It’s the high-school version of Atalanta vs. Peleus. Anya shrugs: “Anyone can underestimate anyone.”

She’s right, and to be fair, it’s an adjustment for the boys, too, who are also grappling — literally — with shifting gender dynamics.

“I wrestled a girl once in eighth grade. It was very uncomfortable,” says Brody, a 10th-grader on the boys’ wrestling team. “I didn’t want to be mean. Obviously, you’ve always been told to not be rough with girls. It’s kind of weird to go do that.” He admits that not all of the guys on the team have been so accepting of the girls — that there’s been some snickering, some immaturity.

“It’s been a change,” says his teammate, a 10th-grader named Gavin who wears his hair in a shaggy mullet. “It was different for the guys.” But they both say how strong the girls are, how much they’ll change the game.

I ask a few of the girls what this milestone — their sport is finally official in the state! — means to them. I’m not sure what I’m expecting to hear. Maybe something having to do with the fight for gender equality, or the smashing of gender stereotypes, or what this could do for the girls of the future. But a junior, Ollie Sloan, answers immediately.

“No more wrestling guys. That’s my favorite part.”

Adriana Pagan, a sophomore, disagrees: “I like wrestling guys. I like the challenge.”

Ollie scrunches up her nose in disgust. “It’s just so sweaty.”

I laugh. Of course. I’d forgotten: These girls I see as brave barrier-breakers who don’t realize yet just how brave they are; who are going up in a combat sport against boys, some of whom make fun of them in locker rooms and underestimate them on the mat; who will someday go up against men who will try to take up their space and quiet them down — they’re just teenagers.

They’re just girls.

“Get behind her. Get behind her. GET BEHIND HER!” Coach Craig is pacing along the perimeter of the mat at Wrestle Fest, yelling as Jaletsy squares off with Ruby Ogolo, a sophomore. Jaletsy is on all fours, with one arm wrapped around the back of Ruby’s knee. Ruby is on top, with Jaletsy’s head in the crook of her elbow, her hair coming out of her braids in a staticky halo. The eyes of both girls are fixed in blank focus. They’ve been battling for nearly four minutes, and they’re exhausted. A whistle blows, and they finally stand up, hunched over and staggering, limbs dangling like limp noodles, mouths agape.

“Ándale, ándale!” Jaletsy’s mom, Bethzaida, yells. “Let’s go!” She’s kneeling on the floor of the gym, recording as her daughter wraps around Ruby from behind and clings to her like a starfish in an effort to bring her down to the mat. Jaletsy’s grandmother is behind me in the bleachers, her face set in grim concentration, and her friends are next to me, with a bouquet of flowers. They’d given Jaletsy (or “MJ,” as all the girls call her) the flowers earlier and snapped a few pictures of her, sweatpants slung low over her second-skin singlet. She’d posed gamely for them, cocking her head to one side, smiling broadly and tossing up, rather hilariously, two peace signs.

“Come on, MJ, come on, MJ, come on, MJ,” one friend chants now under her breath. Ruby is winning; she’s out for blood after losing a tough match to Jaletsy the day before. Then, before I can understand what’s happening, the clock hits zero, a whistle is blown, Ruby has won, and there is blood, streaming from Jaletsy’s nose. Bethzaida runs out to her daughter, but Ruby is already there, helping Jaletsy stand up, holding a cloud of paper towels to her face, propping her up with an arm and walking her off the mat. She looks visibly worried for her teammate, and I think to myself that maybe this is something the girls can teach the boys: a little bit of nurturing. 

“I think there’s an incredible challenge right now in today’s society with empathy,” says Sally Roberts. She likens being on a wrestling team to her time in the military, where she spent six years as a Special Ops soldier. “When you go through those incredibly tough battles, you learn so much about yourself, but you also learn how to be a good teammate and to recognize when your teammates need help.”

It’s this sort of empathy that can help athletes carve out a spot for themselves in a sport that doesn’t always have a safe space for them — not only girls, but also queer and trans athletes who are constantly fighting sticky battles about where they belong. 

It will take some getting used to, but that’s true of all strides women have made. “As with anything,” Stephany Coakley says, “that’s what happens at the beginning. For every transition, for every change, for every new policy and law, there are challenges with what people think it should be like, or what they’ve become accustomed to and don’t want to change.”

But the sport is changing. And plenty of boys are truly accepting of it; many have grown up with girls on the mats beside them. I see it now at Wrestle Fest: In between the girls’ and boys’ matches, little kids are tumbling around on the mat with their dad, who’s one of the boys’ assistant coaches. There’s a boy out there, but there are also three girls — a two-year-old, and three-year-old twins. The twins put on the colored leg bands that wrestlers wear during matches so referees can communicate points to the scorekeeper, and then they get set up. One bends over in tabletop position, and the other climbs on her back and tries to take her down, just like Ruby and Jaletsy a little earlier. Their mom tells me the girls have mats, singlets and headgear at home.

“The next generation,” Coach Craig says.

By the time they grow up, the sport will undoubtedly have grown even more — more states sanctioning it at the high-school level, more colleges starting women’s teams. (Right now, there are more than 90 NCAA programs; Roberts says women’s wrestling is on track to be an NCAA championship sport by 2026.)

“When a boy starts at five years old, he can say, ‘When I’m in high school, I want to go to PIAA states and win,’” Janna Christine tells me. “As we start girls younger, now they can say that, too. There’s not some fictitious end goal.” They can get college athletic scholarships, go on to run a company, maybe even the country.

“I think the biggest thing that comes out of this sport for girls is agency over themselves,” says Roberts. “That’s one of the most powerful gifts we can give to anyone, especially girls who have been told for far too long that you shouldn’t speak so loudly, you shouldn’t be so aggressive, you shouldn’t be so intimidating, and to recognize that you can in fact be all of those things and it’s okay, because that’s what we need from our leaders to help our nation succeed.”

That’s all well and good, but in the meantime, the girls need to take a team picture. Jaletsy has walked over to her little cheering section, her eyes red and watery, a twisted tissue stuck up her nose, a big smile on her face.

“Do you like my nosebleed?” she says, laughing. “I told you I can take a hit!” She heads with her teammates to the boys’ varsity wrestling room just outside the gym, and I follow with her mom, who’s feeling quite unsettled. It’s the first time she’s seen her daughter wrestle.

“I’m still shaking,” she says. “I feel nervous, I feel scared, but at the same time, I see her happy, and I see the big change that this sport has made in her. But I’m still shaking.”

The girls gather in the wrestling room, the floor covered by one giant mat. Melissa Culpepper is here, wearing a shirt that says “Wrestling Mom” in fancy script, the “o” in orange glitter. There are younger girls in here, too, who will grow up watching their older sisters be strong. In the corner, a boy jumps rope to warm up for his match.

The wrestlers take their places in two rows, the ones in front kneeling. Once again, I think back to high school, and I expect them to pose like we did, leaning in close to each other, arms bent at our hips like teapot handles so they looked skinnier. But Coach Craig tells the girls to flex. “Look tough,” he says.

“No smiles. Everyone, no smiles,” directs Jaletsy.

“Yeah, no smiles!” announces Eliana, and they all hold up their arms, elbows out, taking up space.

“Look at Ruby, all jacked up!” Coach Craig says as he snaps a photo. Ruby smiles proudly — yesterday, she was the one bleeding — and lifts her arms a little higher, her muscles cut like Peleus.

“Okay, let’s just do a random cute one,” Jaletsy says, and then all the girls do lean in closely together, just like we did in high school, arms linked around each other’s shoulders, giggling, sweaty, strong. And I see myself in them now.

“Smile,” says Coach Craig. “You just made history.”


Published as “Fight Like a Girl” in the February 2024 issue of Philadelphia magazine.