Wall Street Journal reports on Girls' Wrestling District IX Women's Wrestling

Reprint from the 1/19/99 WSJ When Girls Wrestle, The Boys They Face Can't Win for Losing Mixed-Sex Matches Proliferate, Along With Ill Feeling; Brenda Emerges Victorious By BARBARA CARTON Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL WEYMOUTH, Mass. - Tiffany Fagioli a 17-year-old junior from Durfee School in Fall River, strides onto wrestling mat, her muscles rippling. She seems not at all concerned that her opponent in the 112-pound weight class is a boy - a sophomore from a Boston high school. A minute ago he was nervously chewing gum. Now, crouched before Ms. Fagioli in a skimpy yellow one-piece uniform, he looks scared to death. He can't win. If he beats her, he beats a girl. And if she beats him, how will he face his friends? "Break her in half!" his teammates holler. He strains, his face purple with effort. But Ms. Fagioli flips him in the third period, grinding his head into the sweaty mat for the pin. Afterward, the boy declines to talk. Ms. Fagioli triumphantly shakes her long brown hair out of her wrestling helmet. "I just wanted to win," she declares. Across the country, sex barriers are falling in the ancient and grueling sport where arms are wrenched from sockets, ears are mashed and moves have names like the "head pry." Last year, about 1,900 girls took part in organized high-school wrelting, up from 219 in 1991-92. The first girls' national high-school tournament was held last year; more colleges are starting female clubs and teams; and women's wrestling is slated for inclusion in the 2004 Olympics. But the sport still has such scattered feminine appeal that few high schools can field an all-girls team or find another one to face. Thus, most teenage girls who want to wrestle have to wrestle teenage boys, showing up at formerly all-male matches - and that's raising hackles. Some parents and coaches worry that girls will get hurt. Others have strong moral concerns. Some male referees balk at judging coed matches, fearful of sex-harassment lawsuits if they have to touch a girl in an awkward spot to break an illegal hold. Male coaches, similarly concerned, often won't demonstrate holds on girls. On the coed mat, lots of classic moves draw nervous laughter such as the "double grapevine pin," also known as the "Saturday night ride," in which a wrestler strives to lie on top of an opponent face-to-face and separate the foe's legs while pushing down hard on the chest. Jim Giunta, a former Texas wrestling official, says boy-girl wrestling is improper, because "there's all kinds of moves where you're grabbing at the lower-midsection." In Manchester, Conn., 17-year-old Bekky Fross shrugs off injuries like the broken collarbone she got after a boy tied her arms up into what's known as the "double chicken wing." But she bristles at those who say it's indecent to wrestle boys. "When you're on the mat, she says, "you're thinking about wrestling and nothing else." Her mother, Cathy Levere, says that facing boys has given Bekky self-confidence and agrees that wrestling is a non-sexual activity. "When they're wrestling, they're not even thinking about 'touching' her," says Ms. Levere. The South Dakota High School Activities Association prohibits mixed-gender wrestling teams. Wyoming does, too-althogh it has granted at least one girl a waiver. The Lutheran High School Association of Greater Detroit forces its male wrestlers to forfeit matches against girls, citing decency concerns. In Texas, the Dallas chapter of the Texas Wrestling Officials Association disbanded temporarily, afraid it would be sued on discrimination grounds when its members refused to officiate at boy-girl matches. The group reformed when the state started an all-girls program. But now, some of the Texas refs won't work girl-vs.-girl contests. "It's the only sport that requires an official to jump down and break up a hold, and 90% of the time when we grab, it's the upper body area," says Mike McQueen, president of the Texas officials group. If somebody were to bring a lawsuit against you - even if you were exonerated - do you know what the papers would do to you?" Caught on Film David Campisano, a wrestler at Norwood High School, outside Boston, lost to an older girl when he was a freshman. Worse, a local paper wrote a story about it included a picture captioned "Horrified Fans Look On." The horrified fans in question were Mr. Campisano's family. Now 17 and a junior, David says he viewed the loss as just a "regular match" and "just like wrestling a boy, but it was a girl." His mother says that at the time, the match "was the closest he had ever been to a girl in his whole life. When he grabbed her on the mat, he apologized to her. He lost concentration." David Breen, a Massachusetts tournament official, says that while Mr. Campisano is good-natured about it, he still sees opposing wrestlers razz the boy about the loss. Mr. Campisano and others, when asked by a reporter how they feel about girls as opponents, claim to be unfazed. But Mr. Breen says that isn't how they truly feel: Boys "are conditioned, even in school, to this sexual-harassment type of mentality ...to never, ever say anything against women - to never put down and never say she can't do something," says Mr. Breen. Many boys put on a nonchalant face, but "they're wrecks" before-a match with a female, he adds. It's "Am I going to lose to a girl? What's going to be said to me? People don't understand when they talk about high-school kids - they're children. They still have very fragile egos." Instilling Dread In Mass., schools bringing girls to matches are required to send a "mixed gender" warning to opponents 72 hrs before cometition. But instead of calming the jitters, it often stirs them up. "You'll hear kids say, 'What weight class is she in? I hope she's not in mine,'" says Ted Neill, a referee and recently retired coach. Worries of serious injury to girls in mixed matches are prevalent. Mr. Breen says when he was a coach, he once forfeited a contest because he was worried that one of his wrestlers, who weighed 119 pounds but could bench-press 300 pounds, would tear the girl apart. "He was a gentleman," remembers Mr. Breen, "but he had one speed. He went 100% until the match was over." A lot of girls say they discovered wrestling after getting dragged to meets by their fathers. But Michael Wood, a senior analyst at the Teenage Research Unlimited marketing firm in Northbrook, Ill., says wrestling's new female appeal is part of a "girl power" trend. He cites teenage girls affinity for hard-edged women rock stars such as Courtney Love, the popularity of clunky boots and athletic jackets and death-dealing TV heroines such as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." "No one ever said I shouldn't be doing it," says Brenda McDaniel, 17, a 119-pound wrestler at Tri-County Regional Vocational Technical HS in Franklin, Mass. "Everyone feels it's awesome. Since I joined the team, I've gotten a lot more respect from the teachers. Even the students look at me like "Brenda the big wrestler."

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