Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union will officially sponsor girls wrestling, starting in 2022-23

Cody Goodwin
Des Moines Register

Girls wrestling is, officially, a high school sport in Iowa.

The Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union will officially offer girls wrestling as a sanctioned sport starting in the 2022-23 school year. That’s according to Erin Kirtley, an IGHSAU associate director who was hired in September for this very reason.

The announcement was made before Saturday night’s championship matches at the fourth annual girls state wrestling tournament, hosted by the Iowa Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association this weekend at Xtream Arena in Coralville.

The IGHSAU Board of Directors met last Wednesday, Jan. 12, to formally vote and add girls wrestling to the union’s list of sponsored sports. The vote passed unanimously.

"We think there's a great foundation in place for the success of this sport and we intend to fully support these Iowa girls as they continue their pursuit of championships," IGHSAU Executive Director Jean Berger said in a statement, announcing the addition of girls wrestling, the 11th sport now offered by the IGHSAU.

"As the sanctioning process unfolded, the Board was able to quickly approve this new opportunity for our girls and schools across the state," Berger continued. "The increase in participation, the growth in youth wrestling and the willingness of our schools to commit to the sport all factored into this decision."

Lingering details remain — regular season and postseason structure, plus championship dates and locations among them — but the IGHSAU plans to follow the National Federation of State High School Associations rules and guidelines. 

Kirtley said the IGHSAU will assemble an advisory committee to figure out those details before next season. She said ideas have surfaced since the IGHSAU said they’d heard from more than 50 Iowa schools that they’ll support a girls wrestling team in October. Officially, the IGHSAU said it's heard from 58 schools.

“My head is full of details,” Kirtley told the Register. “We want to make sure we’re looking at the unified calendar and are smart about our dates. I’ve got some plans, but my hope is to get that in front of an advisory committee very soon and then go from there.

“(Last week’s vote) was essentially to vote on clearing the hurdle and saying, 'Yes, we can move forward with this process.' Now it’s about creating the best product for next year.”

Girls wrestling will now be an official sport completely and entirely under the IGHSAU’s umbrella, making Iowa the 34th state nationally whose high school sports governing body either sponsors girls wrestling or recognizes a girls wrestling state championship.

This result is the product of a years-long battle that began in earnest five years ago.

Bettendorf head coach Dan Knight wears a shirt reading "Sanction girls wrestling" during the first session of the Iowa Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association (IWCOA) girls' state wrestling tournament, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022, at the Xtream Arena in Coralville, Iowa.

Between 2013-14 and 2017-18, an average of 65 girls wrestled statewide per season, according to stats kept by Trackwrestling. Because the IGHSAU didn’t formally offer the sport, girls were forced to wrestle boys if they wanted to compete.

Some girls still went out. Megan Black and Cassy Herkelman were the first two girls to qualify for the Iowa High School Athletic Association’s state wrestling championships, in 2011. Black qualified again in 2012 and finished eighth at 113 pounds for Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont. She is the only girl to win a medal at the IHSAA state tournament.

More girls followed. Ballard’s Rachel Watters became the first Iowa girl to win a middleweight sectional title in 2016. South Winneshiek’s Felicity Taylor recorded 100 career victories. Last year, Bettendorf’s Ella Schmit and Ottumwa’s Jasmine Luedtke both qualified for the Class 3A IHSAA state championships at 106 pounds.

But in January 2018, Ogden and Independence both hosted girls divisions at their already-established wrestling tournaments, allowing girls to wrestle other girls instead of guys. Eleven girls competed at Ogden, and another eight wrestled at Independence.

Those numbers seem small now — just 24 total bouts were contested between those two tournaments — but at the time, it was a ginormous step forward.

Girls wrestling is officially a sport in Iowa.

The next season, 2018-19, Iowa’s girls wrestling participation jumped to 188 statewide, according to stats kept by Trackwrestling. Bailey and the IWCOA hosted a girls state wrestling tournament. Only 87 girls showed up and 10 weights were contested, but, again, another ginormous step forward.

The combination of the girls divisions at tournaments and a state championship event helped the state’s participation numbers erupt.

In 2019-20, 554 Iowa girls wrestled statewide, and the IWCOA expanded the girls state tournament to a two-day event, as 350 girls signed up.

In 2020-21, 683 Iowa girls wrestled statewide, and the IWCOA had to move the girls state tournament to Xtream Arena in Coralville, as 457 girls signed up.

Then came this year, where 1,023 girls wrestled statewide, and 695 girls signed up for this weekend’s IWCOA girls state championships.

"This is an extremely important step for the girls," Charlotte Bailey, the women’s director at Iowa USA Wrestling and a driving force behind the sport’s substantial growth in Iowa, told the Register. "We've removed the barrier that's kept schools from jumping on board.

"Now we can create more opportunities for Iowa girls, and that makes this decision really special."

State associations with girls wrestling (34)

Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.