As CHSAA eyes sanctioning girls wrestling, the sport continues to grow at the local and national level15 Feb 2017
Olivia Ioppolo’s love for wrestling is rooted in her backyard, where as a young girl she and her older brother, along with his friends, wrestled on a trampoline. Her brother was two classes ahead of her, and though she was often physically overmatched, she hung tough with the boys, withstanding the bumps and bruises to find her niche.
“I’ve always loved fighting and grappling around, and one day my brother’s wrestling coach told me I should try wrestling,” said Ioppolo, a senior at Silver Creek in Longmont. “Once I got out there, just like in the backyard, the feeling of being on the mat and pinning someone is so primal. I like beating up the boys, and I like getting my hand raised. That feeling is just amazing.”
Ioppolo was one of the best female wrestlers in Colorado this season, posting a 16-17 record as the Raptors’ varsity 106-pounder. She, along with Mountain View junior Kaley Barker (14-25 at 113) and Roosevelt freshman Angel Rios (37-12 at 106) — both of whom came close to qualifying for the state tournament — are at the forefront of a shifting wrestling landscape in Colorado as the popularity of girls wrestling grows.
“In five years, it’ll be possible to have NCAA sanctioning and sanctioning at the high school level in every state, and we want to make it so that girls and boys can participate in the sport and reap the benefits of it in terms of character development, confidence building and overcoming challenges,” said Sally Roberts, a former member of Team USA who founded Wrestle Like A Girl, an organization that works to promote female wrestling. “That’s a realistic goal, especially with the progress over the last decade in the grassroots and international levels of the sport.”
For the first time, there were girls-only tournaments this winter in Colorado, one at Frederick and the other at Chatfield, in addition to an exhibition “state tournament” held in conjunction with the junior varsity state tournament Feb. 4 at Northglenn. And for the ninth consecutive year, a female wrestler qualified for the Colorado High School Activities Association state tournament, to be held Thursday through Saturday at the Pepsi Center. Del Norte sophomore Natalie Benavides is wrestling at 138 pounds in Class 2A.
“It was amazing. Everyone in the stands stood up and cheered for me, and they were all going crazy,” said Benavides, who took fourth at regionals with a dramatic third-period pin to become the eighth girl in CHSAA history to earn a state tournament berth. “I spent the whole summer at camps and girls tournaments preparing for this.”
Support grows in Colorado
The Frederick tournament drew 82 wrestlers from 42 schools, and that turnout, coupled with the fact there were 164 girls wrestlers in the state who were already registered before the season began, proved Colorado had a base of interest to at least test interest for a girls-only division.
“All of the tournaments happened last minute this year, so moving forward there’s opportunity for more participation because we’re going to have the whole offseason to work on that,” said CHSAA assistant commissioner Harry Waterman, who oversees wrestling. “It’s a pilot program right now, and we’re going to have to gather the data over the next couple years to determine if there’s truly enough teams to develop a stand-alone girls division. Usually we need in the ballpark of 20, 25 teams before we have a state tournament.”
Participation numbers are just one factor when it comes to sanctioning girls wrestling. Funding at the local levels and approval by various CHSAA committees and boards are other big hurdles. Wrestling committee chairman Ernie Derrera noted that the success of girls such as Ioppolo, Barker and Rios serves to heighten interest and expedite an evaluation.
“One of the things that helped us realize we could move forward with this rather quickly as opposed to, say, boys volleyball — which has also had some interest as being added as a sport — is that girls are already participating in wrestling,” Derrera said. “Whereas with volleyball, you can’t compete on a high school team as a boy.”
Washington, California, Texas, Hawaii and Tennessee have sanctioned girls wrestling at the high school level. There are 39 states that allow girls to wrestle on boys teams, and 11,496 girls competed in high school wrestling in 2014-15, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations’ most recent statistics.
That grassroots growth, coupled with the rise of American Olympians such as gold medalist Helen Maroulis and Bear Creek graduate Adeline Gray, has generated momentum in breaking down stereotypes surrounding girls wrestling.
“From the conversations I’ve had with different people around the country, they don’t hate girls wrestling. What they don’t necessarily love is when boys and girls wrestle each other,” Roberts said. “One of the things we’ve been able to do is highlight that when girls wrestle girls, suddenly that notion of what girls should be doing as a sport goes away, because that conflict of ideology no longer exists.”
For now, girls-only wrestling is gaining traction, but the only true chance at sanctioned competition for females in Colorado is on the mat against boys. That’s where Ioppolo, Barker, Rios and countless other girls are working toward individual goals but advancing their gender in the sport as well. I’m about feminism a bit, and I’m about creating more opportunities for younger girls, but for all that to work I just have to remember that I love the sport,” said Brighton sophomore Jaslynn Gallegos, who took first at 111 pounds at the Frederick girls tournament. “I like thinking girls can do what guys can do, because everyone thinks girls aren’t as tough. I’ve proved that wrong ever since I was little.”
Inspiring younger wrestlers
For top-tier female wrestlers such as Barker, who qualified for state at 106 pounds in 2016 but fell short at this year’s regionals, the rise of girls-only tournaments this season created a conundrum.
Barker had to decide between competing in those two exhibition tournaments or to keep wrestling as scheduled against the boys. Under CHSAA rules this season, girls were allowed to wrestle in either the boys or girls division at Frederick and Chatfield. Should girls wrestling become sanctioned, however, girls would have to stick to wrestling girls.
Barker, though, didn’t flinch at the path that was going to get her most prepared for the postseason, and that was to compete against boys.
“Kaley’s been the girl who’s never been afraid of anything,” said Mountain View coach Scott Barker, who is Kaley’s father. “She jumps first and asks questions later, and she’s never been hesitant to step onto the mat with a guy. When the girls tournaments started opening up, we thought about competing against the girls, but it all comes back to her mind-set: She’d rather go against the toughest competition and lose than face easy competition and win.”
The NCAA does not sanction girls wrestling, so there’s no clear-cut next step for girls who want to wrestle after high school. A handful of smaller schools around the country, such as King University in Bristol, Tenn., and Menlo College in Atherton, Calif., compete in the Women’s Collegiate Wrestling Association, and Roberts said her organization hopes to persuade the NCAA to sanction women’s wrestling within the next few years.
In the meantime, wrestlers such as Maya Nelson — who competed at the University of the Cumberlands (Williamsburg, Ky.) after graduating from Denver East and now wrestles full-time at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs — look for alternative routes to pursue their dreams.
Current high schoolers such as Kaden Campbell do what it takes to raise t
“My reasoning for always making the commute and choosing Sons of Thunder was because I want to make it to the Olympics some day, and I know without a shred of doubt in my mind that those coaches can help make that happen for me,” Campbell said. “And it’s nice because not only are they my coaches, they’re my teachers, too, so I get to form a bond with them. They’re in this journey with me together, which is nice because there’s limited opportunities for girls who want to make wrestling their dream.”
Up to 40,000 fans will come through the Pepsi Center doors this Thursday through Saturday, and though only one girl will be competing at state, there are bound to be a few impressionable young girls looking on, dreaming of the day they can make their mark, as Benavides has done.
“It shows the younger girls that they can still do this, even though it’s not a girls sport yet,” said Benavides, who is looking to become the first girl to place (top six) in a state tournament. “I feel like at regionals, I really inspired those little girls in the stands. A lot of them came up to me afterward and said they’re wrestling because of me. This weekend, I want to make another statement to show that girls want to do this sport, and I want my wrestling to make it easier for girls in the future.”
heir game. The 16-year-old competes for Greeley Central (she won the 131-pound title at the Chatfield tournament) but goes to school in Castle Rock at a specialized wrestling academy called Sons of Thunder. For a while, she was driving to and back from Greeley to Castle Rock five days a week, but lately she has been staying with a Sons of Thunder coach part-time to cut down on the transit, sacrifices Campbell believes are worth it in the pursuit of her dream.