After decades of having girls wrestle against boys, the IHSA has passed a by-law that will give high schools the opportunity to create a girls wrestling program where female athletes can compete against other girls. Former OPRF board member and girls wrestling coach Fred Arkin has been one of the faces leading the charge to get this done.
“[Girls wrestling] is growing and it’s growing fast,” said Arkin. “I think the more the girls find and see benefits of wrestling, it is going to rival the boys.”
However, passing the by-law does not mean the IHSA has recognized girls wrestling as an established sport. The by-law classifies girls wrestling as an “emerging sport.” According to the IHSA’s website, there are 24 sports that are considered “emerging sports.” Before girls wrestling can shed that title, the IHSA wants more data on participation in the sport.
According to Arkin, 641 girls were certified last year by the IHSA to participate in wrestling (meaning high school girls signed up for the sport and had their body fat tested). This was up from the 433 athletes certified in 2017.
Arkin is one of the co-chairs of the Illinois Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association steering committee. Passing the by-law is a big step for moving the legitimacy of the sport forward. Arkin knows there are other obstacles in establishing girls wrestling as a future staple of the IHSA but has faith the IHSA will see how the sport will grow.
“If there is a demand for the sport, the IHSA will let it happen,” said Arkin. “The IHSA isn’t throwing up roadblocks and has been very cooperative. This is something they see coming down the road and they want to do all of their due diligence to make sure it isn’t a flash in the pan and that this is something that is going to grow and be consistent over time.”
OPRF’s wrestling program is one of the pioneers of hosting tournaments where female wrestlers can primarily go up against other female wrestlers. Since the by-law was passed, OPRF has nine events and tournaments planned for this season that exclusively involve female wrestlers facing one another. The D200 board also approved a small stipend for the program to have a coach, due to the expressed interest in the sport.
According to Arkin, OPRF’s girls division had “20 to 30” female wrestlers show up this year to the preseason wrestling meeting compared to last year’s 11. Having more members on the team this season has created a new dynamic for the female wrestlers who were around at the beginning.
“I am very excited,” said OPRF wrestler Camila Neuman. “We have never had so many opportunities where we have a bunch of different events where we can wrestle at and have actual bracketed weight classes. It’s awesome. I don’t have to feel nervous about wrestling a boy or anything.”
Even with these tournaments set up, the girls will still travel with the varsity boys team during dual meets since most teams in the area don’t have enough female participants to fill out all of the weight classes.
With more female wrestlers wanting to participate in the sport, there is also the obstacle of making sure these athletes are in a safe environment to take part in any school’s program. Neuman has found it disheartening that she is viewed as a “female wrestler” and not a “wrestler.”
“I was always scared wrestling a boy because of how it would look if I lost,” said Neuman. “I thought they would think, ‘Oh she’s so weak; she lost to a boy.’ I feel like when wrestling guys, they will do anything to win against you because you are a female. It only makes you want to prove them wrong.”
Neuman also says that having gone through an offseason, preseason, and regular season of wrestling has earned her more respect from the coaching staff and the varsity team since she has now “proved herself.” However, there are some male wrestlers who, she claims, still make jokes about her presence in the wrestling room.
“I don’t know if that is just an immaturity thing or if it’s something else,” said Neuman.
Kennedi Dickens has had a different experience than her teammate being in a different weight class.
“I was already friends with [some members of the boys team] and when we were at the preseason meeting, they were like, ‘Oh Kennedi you’re going to wrestle? That’s cool,'” said Dickens. “They thought that I could do it.”
Arkin wasn’t aware of the situation that Neuman described.
“This is the first I have heard that kind of comment from Camila [Neuman],” said Arkin.
“It wouldn’t surprise me since they are 14-year-old boys. But it is our goal to be sure that [the female wrestlers] are in a welcoming environment. We’ve had conversations with people in the building, especially [OPRF PE teacher and faculty member] Linda Carlson, about how to, as an adult male, coach girls. But I am not going to say there weren’t growing pains to having girls as a part of the wrestling program.”
Arkin went on to say that being able to divide the athletes up will help with this issue. With there already being a limited amount of practice space, it is difficult to separate the groups.
Even with difficulties that come with breaking into a new sport, female high school wrestlers are starting to get a shot at competing with one another.
“If you look at what is happening nationwide with girls wrestling, this is a sport on the rise,” said Arkin. “We will continue to fight the good fight with the IHSA and we are confident to get a state tournament going at some point in the future.”