Helen Maroulis started wrestling when she was 7, but only because her brother needed a practice partner. Back then, she was the only girl on the mat; sometimes the only girl in the gym.
Now, Maroulis, 23, and a two-time world championships medalist, looks up from the mat and sees girls in the stands cheering her on. Young girls want to know what she eats and how she trains.
Women’s wrestling has fans.
“USA Wrestling organized clinics (last month) in three states, and we had about 200 girls turn out for the one in California.” Maroulis said. “They were from grade school through high school … That’s a lot of girls.”
It’s a different world now for girls who want to participate in wrestling, and USA Wrestling is hoping to spread that message by declaring March 2-8 Women’s Wrestling Week.
Activities during the week encourage female athletes with no experience to try the sport for free at a participating club in their area, while those with wrestling experience can try their moves on the mat in a sanctioned event the weekends of March 8-9 and March 15-16.
“Wrestling gives girls the opportunity to empower themselves through the sport and gain confidence and strength, and all that carries over into life,” said 2012 Olympian Clarissa Chun, who won a bronze medal in London. “Win or lose, you put yourself out there on the mat and you learn to work hard, because nothing comes easy in life.”
Women’s Wrestling Week is being held in conjunction with a campaign by United World Wrestling, the international federation that governs wrestling. The campaign, named the Super 8, has brought together eight women’s wrestlers from different countries to focus on ways to increase female participation worldwide. Maroulis is the U.S. representative, and the clinics last month were organized as part of her role. The campaign ends March 8 at the Women’s Wrestling World Cup in St. Petersburg, Russia.
“There are so many benefits to wrestling — I feel like I learn something new every practice and it transfers to every single part of my life,’’ said Adeline Gray, a two-time world champion and four-time world championships medalist.
“Whether it’s your relationship with your parents or your boyfriend or just getting your homework done — I feel like so many things in life are easier to understand and kind of grit through once you realize you can make it through some really tough practices.
“It’s that clear goal setting that is so important in every area of life,” Gray continued, “and that’s something wrestling teaches you, to set little goals and constantly be reaching them and pining for them.”
Women’s wrestling has grown dramatically from the early 1990s, when there were only about 100 women who wrestled on the high school level. Now, there are more than 9,900 high school girls representing 1,518 programs, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. This doesn’t count the girls who still compete on boys’ teams or all the girls in club programs. College-level varsity programs have grown to 24 from five.
A key to this growth came when a few states began offering all-girls high school state championships. But by far, the biggest boon was when women’s wrestling was included in the Olympic Games in 2004. Since then, female high school participation has more than doubled.
“After my first year of wrestling, my parents made me quit because they said it wasn’t an Olympic sport and there’s really no future or college opportunities,” Maroulis said. “But a couple months later it was announced that women’s wrestling was going to be added to the Olympics, and my parents said that if this is what I wanted to do, I could keep wrestling.”
There has also been a marked change in the perception of the sport.
“Since I first started with women’s wrestling eight years ago, the rate of growth has been impressive and the tide of opinion has changed 180 degrees,” said Terry Fike, founder and director of the Women’s Wrestling Project in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania.
“Initially there was a skepticism and a lack of respect (about girls wrestling) that now is completely inverted in terms of the majority opinion. Now it’s normal to see elementary school girls in the lower grades in the sport, and that’s where you see a lot of enthusiasm from them and their parents.”
Gray says she has quite a following of girls on Facebook, many of whom are wishing her well at the world cup next week. Social media notwithstanding, celebrity rarely used to include female wrestlers.
“I remember when I won the junior world championships in 2008, and this person walked up to me and handed me their baby,” Gray said. “I had no idea why, and they didn’t speak English, but through a translator they said they wanted a picture of me with their baby because they wanted their baby to be with a world champion. I’m sitting there and I said, ‘What, me? You want me?’”
Maryann Hudson is a freelance writer from the Houston area. She was previously an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times. She has written for TeamUSA.org and USParalympics.org since 2012 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.