USA Wrestling's women's program grows under Terry Steiner
IOWA CITY, Ia — All Terry Steiner wanted was someone to agree with him.
The former Iowa wrestler wanted someone to tell him he was right for thinking USA Wrestling’s women’s national freestyle coaching position was the wrong job for him, that he needed to stay at the college level and continue on a path toward leading his own program with a roster of young men.
But Steiner found devil’s advocates everywhere he turned in his search for a sounding board in the spring of 2002.
It started when Steiner, then an assistant at Wisconsin, called Rich Bender with hopes USA Wrestling’s executive director would endorse him for college jobs with a letter of recommendation. Bender obliged but also asked Steiner if he’d consider the women’s freestyle job.
He reluctantly listened to Bender’s pitch and later told his wife about the conversation.
Her response: “Why wouldn’t you look at it?”
Steiner drove a mile down the road, hoping his twin brother, Troy, would see things through the same lens. Terry expressed his fears that coaching women’s wrestling in Colorado Springs would make him an outcast in the coaching fraternity if he ever wanted to get back into the college game.
“At that time, Title IX was such a big issue and college coaches were not for women in the sport of wrestling – or probably women in sport at that point,” Terry said. “It was just a tough time. Troy just said, ‘If you come back into college wrestling, you’re not going to be hired by college coaches, you’re going to be hired by college administrators who want to know you can work with everyone.
“I kind of left Troy’s house saying the same thing: ‘You’re no help, either.’”
Steiner began questioning himself at that point. He took a deep dive into the reasons for his involvement and investment into the sport. He thought about everything his family had reaped from wrestling.
“I never accomplished every goal I wanted to accomplish, but it’s been very good to me,” he said. “I just believe in the life skills it teaches people and how it prepares them for life.
“My next question to myself was: If that’s really why I coach, to be an educator and to advance human beings forward, then why does it make a difference if it’s a man or a woman who’s in front of me?”
The tipping point for Steiner occurred when his wife gave him another question to ponder: What if your daughter wants to one day follow in your footsteps?
Fourteen years later, Steiner remains entrenched in the role he initially didn’t want to take.
“I feel like I have a real purpose here,” he said.
His team has stacked up four straight third-place finishes at the World Championships. Helen Maroulis and Adeline Gray won World titles last year and Gray is a favorite to become the first Olympic gold medalist in American women’s history, provided she first continues her domestic dominance Sunday at the Olympic Trials in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“He’s very understanding and has a real knack for working with females and he’s able to work outside his comfort zone sometimes of what’s traditional,” Gray said. “It’s still a male-dominated sport, and I think for coaches to come over and coach women, it takes some adjusting. He’s the best at it.”
Steiner has witnessed tremendous growth in women’s wrestling during the four years since the Trials’ last appearance in Iowa City.
Wrestling is one of the fastest-growing sports for girls at the high school level with more than 11,000 participants nationally. Four colleges are in the process of launching new programs, increasing the total to 30, and National Wrestling Coaches Association executive director Mike Moyer said that number could skyrocket if wrestling is granted emerging sport status by the NCAA.
Moyer said his organization is working in conjunction with USA Wrestling to apply for that distinction later this spring.
Steiner envisions a day when a college wrestling dual features both men and women. He pictures a time when more than 30 states sanction high school girls' wrestling. Six states currently sanction state tournaments for high school girls.
"He believes very strongly in what he’s doing,” said Iowa coach Tom Brands, who teamed up with Steiner when they wrestled together in college with the Hawkeyes. “I believe he’s on equal footing, but there’s a lot of people who don’t and by God almighty he knows he’s on equal footing with the men. And he will fight for those women for everything they deserve and they know it. And when you fight for your athletes, they’re going to fight for you.
“He’s doing a good job, but he wants to do a great job, and that’s the other thing that keeps him going. He wants to be the best.”
Japan is the gold standard in women’s international wrestling. The Japanese have won 20 team titles at the World Championships since 1989, including 11 of the last 13. Japan’s Saori Yoshida and Kaori Icho have combined for 29 World and Olympic titles. USA Wrestling has won 14 in its entire history.
Those facts and figures are what gets Steiner up and moving in the morning. He thinks his program can compete with Japan, but the American women aren’t yet at a point where they can do it consistently.
The difference in the two programs, Steiner said, is development at younger age levels.
“We’ve got to get our hands around these athletes at a younger age,” he said. “We can’t buy an Olympic medal at 20 years old. We have to start purchasing that when we’re 14, 15, 16, 17 years old. When we do that, then we can expect success at the Senior level.”
Securing tickets to Rio is the primary task at hand for the time being. USA Wrestling is qualified for the Olympics at two of the six weights.
Four Trials winners will leave later this month to go to an Olympic qualifying tournament in Mongolia.
“We’ve got a lot of wood to chuck,” Steiner said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do before we’re there with our whole Olympic team. Now I think we’ll get that done, but it just shows how the landscape has changed, even in four years.
“We went from four weights and I think there was some fluff in there at the Olympic Games at some weight classes when you got down to the last few people. Now we’re at six weights and there’s not any fluff. It’s going to be challenging to qualify weight classes. It just shows how the whole world level has come up.”