Since 1994, the number of high school female wrestlers has grown from 804 to 16,562, according to the National Wrestling Coaches Association. Though this number may not compare to the 245,564 males that participate, Team USA found high school wrestling on the girls’ side showed participation growth for the 29th straight year.
Two female RBHS students in particular might be noteworthy for the sport’s continual development, at least in the state of Missouri.
Freshman Anna Stephens’ father was a Bruin wrestler and introduced her to the sport. After watching old wrestling videos of her father and becoming more familiar with the game, Stephens said she was happy to hear both boys and girls could wrestle at RBHS. Stephens said all schools should open up wrestling to both boys and girls because it is a sport that adds character and can be helpful for self-building.
“If you can push through the physical and mental demands of wrestling, it will help build you for the future to allow you to push through to achieve the goals in life,” Stephens said. “It may be rough and seem gross, but once you try it, then you would see it’s really fun and interesting, like don’t judge a book by its cover. You have to open the book and read the first page. You [have] to at least try the sport out before you judge it.”
Head coach Robin Watkins said he cannot speak for any other sport, but as far as wrestling goes, it is all about the technique, even when there is concern about the physical aspect of male and female.
“When they are in there running and sweating and throwing up, it is all about the training, all about execution,” Watkins said. “It is all about getting better, and nobody is thinking about anything else.”
Having had a relative compete at the high school level, Stephens said her family is proud of her decision in joining the team. Additionally, Stephens said her teammates and coach are wonderful friends and role models.
Every day in practice, alongside Stephens is junior Paige Hensley. Having another girl on the team has been helpful because Hensley said she more easily opens up and meets new friends through the teammates Stephens already knows.
“I got interested in the sport because a lot of my old friends said I couldn’t do it, so I wanted to prove them wrong,” Hensley, who wrestles at the 126 lb. level, said. “One of my close friends at Father Tolton wrestles and kind of inspired me. I always went to his matches and saw how dedicated he was, which definitely made me [want to] try it.”
In terms of having girls on the team, Watkins emphasized they are just wrestlers, like anyone else. With Hensley being an upperclassmen, Watkins said she helps with leadership, academics and tutoring. Stephens, who has more wrestling experience than Hensley, helps her get acclimated with what to expect in the sport, Watkins said.
“Really they are a contrast to each other, but they compliment each other very well,” Watkins said.
Hensley said she enjoys participating in the co-ed sport because it helps decrease people looking down on girls.
“Being able to do as much as the guys is such a great feeling because my gender isn’t influencing what I can and can not do,” Hensley said. “I love feeling equal to the guys as if I can do just as much as them in a sport I just began in.”
Throughout the entire journey, Hensley said her family is extremely supportive, and all attended the first match. When it comes to trying different things in high school, Hensley said her family is encouraging with everything. This encouragement translates well into the practice rooms, where the head coach is just as attentive with his support, making sure Hensley is wrestling someone close to her weight, which is beneficial, she said.
“This is [his] first year coaching at RBHS, so he’s transitioning, too, but he takes things slow if I don’t understand it, but he pushes me to do better,” Hensley said. “He’s really good about making sure the team grasps what we are doing.”
Watkins coached with the Columbia Wrestling Club (CWC) before transitioning to RBHS, so he worked with many of the athletes on the team when they were younger. The CWC focuses on fundamentals, sportsmanship, fun and the teamwork of wrestling, according to the CWC website. Watkins’ coaching style certainly has an impact on the way Stephens sees her teammates.
When Stephens steps into the practice room, she said the people are always happy, and describes the atmosphere as welcoming.
While there are some people who treat Hensley differently because she is a girl or not as big as the others, Hensley said these comments only give her a reason to do better.
“It just builds me up a lot more when they don’t [want to] hurt me,” Hensley said. “It’s definitely an unfair advantage, and I wish it wasn’t there, but it makes me work harder because I’m a super competitive person.”
In addition to the gender differences, weight is a critical component to wrestling, as it determines competition. Hensley said the weight classes are a difficult thing, because the athletes have to make sure they stay in the weight class.
“[Who you] wrestle and how many matches you [wrestle] depends on your weight class,” Hensley said. “This past tournament, there were only five girls, including myself, in my weight class, so I had to go against the other four girls, which made it difficult [because] by the final round I was exhausted, where other people only had two or three matches due to more people being in their classes.”
Watkins said what makes wrestling challenging is that it is an effort sport; however, it can also solidify a strong work ethic and mental toughness.
“It’s on your shoulders, what you put into it is what you get out of it,” Watkins said. “I mean, I don’t care how minuscule of improvement. Improvement is improvement. It is going to show one way or another, match after match, season after season, if you are really putting forth that effort.”
To be in the wrestling room as a girl, Stephens said an athlete has to earn respect and have mental toughness. But, she also said she hopes more girls will join in the near future.
“I love wrestling for the Bruins. The atmosphere [is] like we all push each other, and we are getting work done but having fun with it,” Stephens said. “We all love messing with each other, like teasing, but in a good way and just the people that are in the room, like just the feeling stepping in the room, makes me feel happy because wrestling is my passion.”
Are you on the wrestling team? Let us know in the comments below.