Women face huge odds in wrestling

District IX

From the Sacramento Bee, as posted at TheMat
Marcos Bretón: Women face huge odds in wrestling

By Marcos Bretón -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 5:30 a.m. PST Saturday, Dec. 22, 2001

There are growing numbers of women who wrestle. Not the spandex-wearing women of the World Wrestling Federation.

Real wrestling. The amateur sport as old as the Olympics and practiced by the ancient Greeks.

We're talking two athletes on a mat, summoning a football game's worth of brute strength while grappling in a sporting version of hand-to-hand combat.

For the first time, women will wrestle for Olympic medals in 2004.

American women will be there and, undoubtedly, Californians will be on that team. That's because California produces more female wrestlers than any other state.

Did you know that?

And if an American woman from California stands on the top step of the medals podium, she will be able to honestly say: I did it against all odds.

I did it without much help from my high school or university. I persevered in a sport that was supposed to be for men only.

I practiced wrestling against guys bigger than me because in high school I was the only girl on my team. I tried to get other girls to join, but they looked at me as if I were crazy.

My own family didn't like it. And neither did the parents of boys my size, who wouldn't let their kids compete against me.

I thought about giving up all the time and got subtle and strong signals that I should go away. But I didn't. I fell in love with wrestling when I was young and would do anything to compete.

The thrill of the sport, the challenge of it -- the feeling of squaring off against someone else -- sparked something profound in me. Something I didn't know existed.

Wasn't it true what my parents said? That I could do anything or be anything?

When I threw these words at them, they let me wrestle. That was hard enough. But now for the really hard part: There was no place for me to wrestle in college. Female wrestling is not anywhere near being an NCAA-sanctioned sport.

There are only a handful of women's programs, mostly at small, obscure colleges.

So I would practice with boys and men bigger than me, looking for any type of moral victory even as I was easily pinned and beaten -- time and again.

I went to school without a scholarship. I practiced a sport with no financial payoff. I coached myself in open tournaments when there was no one to help me.

I did it for love -- for the love of the sport. I earned it.

Don't those feelings sound absolutely out of step with what is going on in sports today?

What do you think of athletes like that? Yeah, you hear people all the time yearning for an era where athletes compete "for the love of the sport."

But here's a news flash: There are more than 3,000 American girls wrestling at nearly 900 high schools, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

And though it's unlikely they will get to Athens to compete for Olympic gold in '04, the experiences described here are a composite of the athletic lives of Chris Ng and Lauren Mancuso. Ng, 21, and Mancuso, 18, are women who wanted to remain on the men's wrestling team at UC Davis, and their former coach wanted that as well -- but the university objected.

Davis wants female wrestling to grow as a club sport first. Then, if enough people show interest, make it a full-fledged sport.

There is merit on both sides of this dispute, but it ended badly, with a coach leaving the school and a gender bias complaint. And Davis athletic director Greg Warzecka won't discuss the issue for the record. He's afraid of "getting sued."

Pretty pathetic for a school that has won the Sears Directors' Cup, an annual award given to the best college athletic program in the nation, four times in Division II.

But this situation is not uncommon for a sport until the NCAA recognizes it -- something that could still be years away, said Gary Abbott, director of special projects for USA Wrestling.

Abbott is confident women's wrestling ultimately will be recognized, because "we're in a new generation of female athletics. No one can or will put a limit on what people can do."

Right now, for Ng, Mancuso and American women like them, that's not really true -- there are plenty of limits to competition. That's the price of being a pioneer, of challenging societal limits of gender and believing in today's athletic ideal.

Still, someday an American woman will stand on that top step with an Olympic gold medal in women's wrestling.

And if there are tears, they will be the best kind.

The ones that are earned.

About the Writer
The Bee's Marcos Bretón can be reached at (916) 321-1096 or

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