Wall Street Journal
reports on Girls' 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
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
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
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."
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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