Charlotte Bailey, Iowa USA Wrestling's Women's Director, talks about the growth of the 2020 IWCOA girls' state wrestling tournament and the next steps in the girls' wrestling movement. Des Moines Register
WAVERLY, Ia. — Sydney Park took a deep breath before revealing a thought that many wrestling fans around the state regularly think.
The Davenport Central sophomore had just won her second-straight state title, winning at 126 pounds at the 2020 girls’ state wrestling championships, hosted again by the Iowa Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association. Park was one of 350 girls to compete here this weekend, a sizable jump from the 87 that wrestled here a year ago.
When girls’ wrestling finally becomes an official high school sport in Iowa, this year’s tournament and the one a year ago will be seen as huge steps in the process. Park believes that, too, which is why she revealed some confusion.
“It’s shocking to see that the Iowa girls high school, whatever, union — that they can ignore this,” Park said. “How can you ignore something this big? It’s just, wow.”
The 2020 IWCOA girls’ state wrestling championships was another shining example of the state’s continued growth in girls’ wrestling. In all, 554 girls were registered and eligible to compete this season, according to Trackwrestling, a massive jump from the 188 from last year.
The addition of girls’ divisions to already-established tournaments, as well as last year’s girls’ state tournament, were large reasons why the numbers popped this season. They helped raised awareness. Some coaches took it an extra step by continuing to grow girls’ wrestling within their own schools — 11 teams here this weekend featured 10 or more wrestlers.
That, advocates say, is the next step in the girls’ wrestling movement.
“One of the things that’s really special about wrestling is the dual team experience,” says Charlotte Bailey, the Women’s Director for Iowa USA Wrestling. “I hope that’s what’s next, an IWCOA girls’ dual state tournament, and that there are more schools who can pull together 10-12 girls.”
The Iowa Girls’ High School Athletic Union is aware of the growing movement. Jean Berger, the Union’s executive director, attended last year’s state tournament but was not seen here this weekend. She told the Des Moines Register in December that she had talked with 18 different superintendents who are committed to sponsoring girls’ wrestling.
That number, she said then, must reach 50 — about 15% of the total schools governed by the Union — before advancing the conversation.
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Many coaches have shown a commitment to growing girls’ wrestling within their own schools. Dubuque Wahlert and Iowa City West both started girls’ teams this year and finished in the top-five of this weekend’s competition — Wahlert brought 16 girls and ultimately took third place with 121 points. West brought a tournament-high 21 and finished fifth with 102.
Waverly-Shell Rock, which started its girls’ team last year, won its second-straight girls’ state team championship this year, with 156.5 points. The Go-Hawks’ model is where West drew their inspiration. Bailey believes others will follow suit.
“The process needs to grow within the schools,” she said. “Everyone who’s trying to make a big difference right now, and wants to see it in hurry up mode, needs to look at what their teams look like at their schools. Start there. What does your team look like? What can you learn from some of these other teams?
“The number of schools we have right now that have at least 10 wrestlers is impressive, and I think that a dual format to look forward to at the end of the season would be great. If the teams that currently have just six girls go and recruit enough for an 11-person dual team, we basically just doubled our numbers again. That’s 1,000.”
Nationwide, girls’ wrestling has grown tremendously over the last decade. Last year, 21,124 girls wrestled around the country, according to numbers compiled by the National Federation of State High School Associations. That’s up from 6,025 from the 2008-09 season.
Iowa's 554 girls this year would've ranked eighth nationally by a single state a year ago. Hitting 1,000 would push Iowa to fourth — just ahead of Missouri's 956, which came one year after the Missouri State High School Activities Association added girls' wrestling.
The growth’s starting point can be traced back to 2013, when wrestling was nearly axed from the Olympics. Changes were made at the international level, and a big one was expanding opportunities for women’s wrestlers. Three years later, Helen Maroulis became the first American to win a gold medal in women’s freestyle wrestling at the 2016 Olympic Games.
The growth has made its way down to the college and high school levels. On Saturday, just hours before the IWCOA state finals began, the NCAA voted for Full Emerging Sport Status for women’s wrestling in both Division II and III, a landmark decision that brings the sport one step closer to an official NCAA Women’s Wrestling Championship.
That means both Divisions II and III must grow to 40 programs each to reach Championship Status. There are just 22 programs competing across Divisions I, II and III combined, but an another 11 will begin in the 2020-21 season. The next step would be to maintain Championship Status for one full year to receive an official NCAA Women’s Wrestling Championship.
The Division I vote will be in April.
"Today is a great day for women's wrestling, and all of wrestling,” Mike Moyer, the Executive Director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association, said in a release. “A day women's wrestling will be forever grateful to everyone involved who made this possible.”
Here in Iowa, five colleges now offer women’s wrestling: Waldorf, Grand View, Iowa Wesleyan, William Penn and Indian Hills. Each one was here on Saturday recruiting. Revealing more collegiate opportunities will help the growth at the high school level, too.
Bailey has been glued into the girls’ wrestling conversation for years, since back when her daughter, Jasmine, wrestled for West and then, later, McKendree. She has long dreamed that Iowa would join the 21 other states that offer girls’ wrestling as an official sport.
This weekend’s state tournament was another step in the right direction. She figures next year’s tournament will be so much bigger that they may have to move it into a bigger venue, another step toward the ultimate goal.
“Who knows how many girls there will be next year,” said Pleasant Valley’s Chloe Clemons, the 120-pound state champ. “Maybe we’ll get over 500. Think about that. That’s kind of crazy.
“For me, personally, I can’t wait for even younger girls who are coming up behind me to experience something bigger than this — maybe even in an arena someday.”
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.
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