Adding women's program at University of Iowa, a storied wrestling powerhouse, called 'game-changer' for sport
IOWA CITY — Ella Schmit, a senior from Bettendorf, is Iowa’s top high school female wrestler right now. She’s a two-time girls’ state champ, a Junior All-American and, last year, she qualified for the boys’ state tournament — and won a match, too.
Ever since she "started walking," she says, Schmit has also been an Iowa wrestling fan. Her family has held season tickets for years, spending winter weekends watching the Hawkeyes at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
"I remember sitting there thinking about how cool it would be if Iowa had a women’s wrestling team," Schmit told the Register, "but it never occurred to me that it could become a reality."
That reality happened on Thursday.
The Hawkeyes announced they are adding a women’s wrestling program to their athletics department. Iowa is the first Division I Power Five school to add women’s wrestling.
The team will begin competing during the 2023-24 season. A nationwide search for the team’s first head coach is underway, and a hire is expected in the spring. The women’s team will operate independently from the successful men’s program, though coach Tom Brands will help as the women’s program gets settled.
"The women will have their own practice times, their own head coach, their own structure," Brands said during a press conference on Thursday. "The women will run their program as they see fit.
"This is important to a lot of people for a lot of reasons. This needed to happen, and it’s appropriate that it is happening at the University of Iowa. There is no greater place in the world to wrestle than Iowa City, and with our new wrestling facility, we are prepared to offer world-class training for both our Hawkeye men and women."
This is a monumental decision — for Iowa, for the continued growth of women's wrestling at the college level and for the sport of wrestling at large. Mike Moyer, the executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association, called the announcement a "game-changer."
Lawsuit over sports equity for women preceded decision
The decision also comes on the heels of a Title IX lawsuit filed in September 2020 against the University of Iowa after the school announced it would terminate four programs, including women’s swimming and diving and men's gymnastics, tennis and swimming and diving. The university has since reversed itself and reinstated women's swimming and diving.
Gary Barta, Iowa’s athletics director, had announced the cuts in August 2020 as cost-saving measures in response to COVID pandemic-related budget shortfalls. He said then that the school was Title IX-compliant, even though Title IX experts disagreed.
The lawsuit, filed by Jim Larew on behalf of four Iowa women’s swimmers, specifically asked for the reinstatement of women’s swimming and the addition of one or two women’s sports in order for the university to be in compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
The NCAA defines Title IX compliance as requiring dollar-for-dollar spending on scholarships among men and women, and it must be proportional to student population. According to Iowa's fiscal-year 2020 report supplied to the NCAA, $6,524,387 was spent on athletic aid for men and $5,860,477 for women. That total includes the three men's sports that are now cut.
The lawsuit against Iowa was still active even after women’s swimming was reinstated last February, and asked that both women’s wrestling and rugby be considered as possible additions. Larew said in a release after Thursday’s announcement that the addition of a women’s wrestling program at Iowa "accomplished one of the central goals of the litigation."
"The announcement does have a relationship to the actions of a brave group of undergraduate women’s athletes who love the university but believe the university could do better in its offerings for varsity sports opportunities for women," Larew told the Register. "They share my enthusiasm for this important, new development."
Additionally, an independent Title IX monitor will work with Iowa over the next three years to conduct annual audits of all aspects of Title IX compliance described in the lawsuit: equal benefits and treatment, scholarships, and athletic participation opportunities.
"We are pleased with the outcome of this litigation and what it means for women athletes at the University of Iowa," Sage Ohlensehlen, the lead plaintiff in the case, said in the release from Larew Law Office.
"We believe that the impact of this resolution will be felt by women athletes at other universities and will lead to an expansion of varsity female athletic opportunities beyond the UI."
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Iowa's wrestling tradition fed desire to be first
Those thoughts from Ohlensehlen, who was a captain of the women’s swim team at the time the lawsuit was filed, are shared by those clad in black and gold, as well as the greater wrestling community.
Steps leading to this decision have taken place over the past year. Barta said last year the school was interested in a women’s wrestling team. The program recently fundraised for a new wrestling facility big enough for two programs. The Hawkeye Wrestling Club also just added three women’s freestyle wrestlers to its roster, in Victoria Francis, Jordan Nelson and Rachel Watters.
"It’s exciting to be the first," Barta said. "This is an area, because of our history and our tradition in wrestling, it actually makes sense that Iowa is able to be the first."
Iowa wrestling has won 24 NCAA team titles, the second most in NCAA history, with its most recent coming in 2021. The Hawkeyes have led the nation in wrestling attendance each of the past 14 seasons — and that’s not counting the 2021 season, which was hampered by COVID-19.
That college wrestling’s most visible and one of its most successful programs is adding a women’s team is perhaps the biggest splash in what’s been an ongoing and rapid rise of girls’ and women’s wrestling around the country.
There are now more than 100 colleges that have added women’s wrestling programs nationwide, including more than 40 at the NCAA level. That number is important, as women’s wrestling is considered an emerging sport by the NCAA at the Division I, II and III levels. NCAA bylaws say a sport needs 40 varsity NCAA programs, at minimum, to gain full championship status.
Iowa is only the third NCAA Division I school to add women’s wrestling, joining Presbyterian College in South Carolina and Sacred Heart University in Connecticut. The Hawkeyes are the seventh Iowa school to add it: Iowa Wesleyan is also an NCAA program, in Division III; Waldorf, Grand View and William Penn are in the NAIA; and Indian Hills and Iowa Western are junior colleges.
"This is a great day for wrestling, that’s for sure," Moyer told the Register. "Talk about breaking a glass ceiling. This takes it to a whole new level. All boats will rise with this tide.
"For anybody out there, any administrators that want to wait and see if girls’ and women’s wrestling is here to stay, I think this eliminates any doubt."
Female wrestling participation soars in Iowa and around the nation
A handful of other Power Five schools have readied themselves to add women’s wrestling programs, but the Hawkeyes were the first to pull the trigger, and it positions them to strike early with the upcoming wave of talented wrestlers that will soon be available in recruiting.
This past summer, the U.S. won team titles at the Cadet and Junior women’s freestyle world championships. The Cadet team had three gold medalists and four others won bronze, while the Junior team had five total medalists, including four winning gold. Many of those girls are high-schoolers, and Iowa is already eyeing many as recruiting targets.
"The University of Iowa starting a women's program puts women's wrestling at the highest level of NCAA athletics," said Terry Steiner, USA Wrestling’s head women’s wrestling coach and an Iowa graduate. "It helps our national team become an even stronger power of the world stage.
"As a University of Iowa graduate and former student-athlete, it makes me proud to see Iowa step up as a leader in the fastest-growing sport for women in our nation. This is also good news for men's wrestling at the college level, as our sport will have a bigger footprint on college campuses nationwide."
Overall, USA Wrestling’s female membership has increased by more than 70% over the past two years. The overall nationwide participation numbers of girls in wrestling has nearly doubled from 2014-15, when 11,496 girls wrestled, to 2018-19, when 21,124 girls wrestled. That’s according to stats kept by the National Federation of State High School Associations.
As many as 32 state high school associations either sponsor girls’ wrestling or recognize a girls’ wrestling state championship. Before 2019, there were only six. Iowa does not fall under this category because the girls’ state championships are hosted by the Iowa Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association instead of the Iowa Girls’ High School Athletic Union.
Iowa’s statewide girls’ wrestling participation has grown quickly, from 67 in total five years ago, per the NFHS, to 683 in the 2020-21 season, per Trackwrestling. Four Iowa girls earned All-American honors at the 16U and Junior women’s freestyle national championships in July. Eight Iowa girls are ranked in USA Wrestling’s latest high school girls’ wrestling national rankings.
"It makes me feel like this whole movement is becoming successful," said Schmit, the Bettendorf wrestler. "It’s grabbing so much attention that Division I schools and Iowa, the best wrestling school you can think of, is starting a women’s program.
"It literally puts the biggest smile on my face. It’s honestly so cool. It’s mind-blowing."
U.S. women's Olympic wrestling performances provided big boost
A lot of this nationwide momentum began after the 2016 Olympics, when Helen Maroulis became the first American woman to win Olympic gold in women's wrestling. The U.S. women's wrestling program then won four medals at the 2020 Olympics. The U.S. had only five all-time Olympic medalists in women's wrestling before Tokyo.
The Hawkeyes have a rich history when it comes to developing wrestlers into national champions and Olympic medalists. With a women's program now on the way, they can start producing world-class women's wrestlers in Iowa City, too.
"This is amazing news for women’s wrestling," said Tamyra Mensah-Stock, a gold-medal winner at 68 kilograms (150 pounds) in Tokyo this past summer. "It’s good to see these changes taking place, especially because there are so many states sanctioning female wrestling.
"It makes me happy to see this is happening, and I want to thank Iowa for being a pioneer in the sport. With this decision, I know it’ll only be a matter of time before other Division I schools follow their lead."
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.