IOWA CITY, Ia. — Most days, Tom Brands walks into the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex and watches some of the nation’s and world’s best wrestler go through strenuous workouts. Such was the case Monday morning, too — except, well, the characters were a tad different.
“Good morning, ladies,” said the Hawkeyes’ head wrestling coach.
Some of the country’s best women’s freestyle wrestlers were on the mat Monday — not only Alli Ragan and Lauren Louive, both members of the Hawkeye Wrestling Club, but also Kayla Miracle, Forrest Molinari and Michaela Beck. Ragan and Molinari recently made the 2018 world team. Miracle was a U.S. Open Champ. Beck and Louive were both runners-up.
All five spent the past three days as the lead instructors for the Iowa wrestling program’s first All Female Wrestling Camp. They coached girls of all ages and skill levels from around the country (including one from Alaska) inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“When I was looking at camps to go to in high school, I was usually the only girl with all boys’ coaches,” said Ragan, a two-time world silver medalist. “I think this is a great opportunity for girls, and it shows how our sport is growing. We had all-girls clinicians and all-girls campers, and I think that’s huge.”
'Extra attention from some of the best wrestlers in the country'
Attendance for the camp was smaller when compared with some of the program’s more competitive summer camps. Only eight girls were on hand to learn various techniques over three days that applied to both freestyle and folkstyle wrestling.
Reasons for the small numbers were plenty. Many high school girl wrestlers are using this week to prepare for the national tournament in Fargo, North Dakota. Iowa also got the word out a tad later than it would’ve liked.
But the compact camp allowed Louive and Ragan a chance to see what counselor techniques work best, as they plan to offer the camp again next summer.
“The other thing that’s great, too, is when the campers are in groups, we have one senior-level athlete per group. So the campers get that extra attention from some of the best wrestlers in the country,” Louive said. “How great is that?”
'You just have to work for it'
One of the goals of the camp, Louive said, is to introduce the idea of girls’ wrestling to campers. The sport has grown rapidly in recent years. In 2016-17, 14,587 high school girls wrestled nationwide, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. The number of states sanctioning girls' wrestling numbers in the double digits, though Iowa isn't one of them. And the overall participation total is nearly three times what it was a decade ago (5,048 in 2006-07).
As such, instructors tried to educate campers about the sport in addition to showing techniques. Currently, there are 38 programs sanctioned through the Women’s Collegiate Wrestling Association, the sport’s collegiate governing body. Even more, women’s freestyle wrestling has been an Olympic sport since 2004.
Last year, various wrestling organizations and individuals contributed to submit a bid to the Women’s Committee On Athletics in the hopes of making women’s wrestling an emerging sport under NCAA supervision. Brands even sent a letter in support.
In April, the NAIA granted invitational status to women’s wrestling, beginning in the 2018-19 academic year. As many as 25 teams are expected. A national women’s wrestling invitational will be hosted annually, and once a sport has 40 teams and has completed two years at invitational status, it may apply for championship status.
“Every camp that I go to, I always tell them about the growth in women’s wrestling,” Louive said. “There are many opportunities at all different levels. You can get your school paid for. You could win an Olympic gold medal. You just have to work for it.
“All the boys on the team here at Iowa, and on other teams, have sisters or cousins that watch and support them. So if they see a girl out there wrestling, they’re like, ‘Oh, I can do that, too.’ We went around to every girl here and asked how they got started in wrestling, and almost all either had a brother that wrestled or their dad coached.”
'No, not that John Smith'
Louive fell into that category. She grew up in Massillon, Ohio, about two hours from Ohio State. She was a multiple WCWA All-American at University of the Cumberlands in Kentucky, and is now an assistant coach at Cornell College in Mount Vernon while also training with the HWC.
She wants to coach a Division I girls’ wrestling program someday. Until then, she’s helping advance the conversation by hosting all-girls camps around the country. On this day, the small group featured experienced wrestlers and newcomers.
For example, during a period of live wrestling, one camper dropped into a leglace, a common freestyle technique, as if she had hit it dozens of times before. Her opponent looked down at her confused, asking: “Is that even a move?”
The campers’ knowledge of the sport was also growing. At one point Monday afternoon, Terry Brands stepped in to help. The younger camper he assisted was completely unaware that it was Iowa's associate head coach who helped her.
Over the weekend, Louive also mentioned John Smith, the Oklahoma State head coach who won six straight world and Olympic titles. The campers all look puzzled.
“We told them, ‘That’s your homework, to find out who he is,’” she said.
As Louive recounted that story, one camper pulled out her iPhone and said, “John Smith was an English soldier,” referencing the colonial governor associated with Native American historical figure Pocahontas. Louive laughed.
“No, not that John Smith,” she replied. “Search 'John Smith wrestling.'”
Such was the weekend, but Louive and Ragan are both excited about the camp's potential moving forward. They’re hoping the lure of a historic program, as well as elite women’s wrestlers sporting the Hawkeye brand, will show other young girls near and far that they, too, can wrestle.
“These girls see that, and they think, 'Hey, this is a possibility and something I can be a part of,'” Louive said. “Those girls are seeing us and are like, ‘I can do that.’ All of the girls here today are proof of that, and that’s huge.”
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.