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Wrestling as boys-only sport is becoming a thing of the past

Wrestling as boys-only sport is becoming a thing of the past
Gracie Figueroa & Alleida Martinez of Selma High School (CA) became national champions in 2016 at The Cadet World Championship, a yearly event where the top Greco-Roman, freestyle and women wrestlers in the world aged 16 and 17 years old compete. (Photo: John Sachs/Tech-Fall.com, Courtesy: The California Wrestler)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (BVM) – Nearly half of the top 10 girls sports in the state of California have decreased in participation since 2018. Popular high school sports for girls such as track and field, softball, swimming and diving and cross country – ranked third, fifth, sixth and seventh, respectively, in regard to participation – have all seen a reduction in its amount of participants.

While sports like girls basketball, soccer and traditional competitive cheer continue to grow, none of the aforementioned have undergone the same transformation as girls wrestling.

Eight years ago, Al Fontes — who has over 40 years of service in the sport of wrestling and has served as the California State Editor of the California Wrestler Newsletter since 1995 — said he never could’ve imagined where the sport would be today.

“It’s grown and grown to where there are more girls coming out (for wrestling) than boys,” Fontes said. “I think it’s on an upward swing and it’s pretty huge. It’s no longer an exception, it’s becoming the rule and more normal now. You go to the California state tournament and those girls are blending in.”

In California, there were nearly 1,000 new girls wrestlers in 2019 (5,286 in 2018 to 6,014) which resulted in a 13.7 percent increase. The California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Sac-Joaquin Section (SJS) has more than doubled its participation in girls wrestling from 2016 (540) to 2020 (1,095).

The SJS began offering a championship tournament for girls in 2010 and the CIF State held its first girls championship in 2011. Previously held separately in Visalia, 2019 was the first year the girls and boys championship was held in the same arena in Bakersfield. In the Stanislaus District, the Central California Conference now has its own girls league championship. The explosion in participation of girls wrestling is not only present in California, but around the country.

Although high school participation in the sport declined for the first time in 30 years in 2018-19, girls wrestling increased by 27 percent, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Aside from an “exponential” increase in participation in girls wrestling, Fontes said he has observed a rise in the level of competition in the sport as well. In year’s past, Fontes said there might have been one or two girls who were head-and-shoulders above the rest of the field in terms of talent. But now, the gap between the most talented and novice wrestlers has narrowed.

“Now you’re starting to see that competition,” Fontes said. “Girls are actually competing, they’re hitting moves and their skillset is increasing.”

In terms of the biggest factor causing this transformation of girls wrestling, Fontes said he’s asked himself the question a thousand times. While he said he is unsure of the leading indicator, citing an increased following of MMA or the rising number of female coaches as possibilities, Fontes said there has been a grassroots effort to promote girls wrestling within the state of California and nationwide.

As girls wrestling continues to gain popularity, Fontes envisions a future where high-level collegiate programs will carry the sport. But before we get to that point, Fontes said, school administrators will have to wake up to the fact that wrestling is trending towards becoming a unisex sport.

“I think we’re going to the point where it’ll be a full-paid coach for both boys and girls wrestling,” Fontes said. “We’re not there yet in most schools, but eventually we will be because I
believe it’s becoming more of the norm. They’re no longer this outlier or spectacle. They’re just another wrestler out there and they’ve earned that.”