Wrestling Issues

By Jessica Portner — March 01, 2002 10 min read
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Girls taking to the mat against boys raises questions about safety, sex roles, and out-of-bounds touching.

On a wintry Tuesday afternoon in San Mateo, California, in the sweat-scented gym of Aragon High School, a wrestling coach whistles for practice to start, and Misty Stalley takes to the mat. The muscular, five-foot-six-inch, 165-pound junior hikes up her sweats, twists her braid into a bun, and finds a worthy opponent. Two dozen teenagers scatter across the room with their partners, then crouch like frogs in starting positions. After a second whistle blows, Misty springs onto her opponent’s back and wraps her arms and legs around the boy’s lanky frame.

The two writhe like warring tigers for several seconds, rocking back and forth. Then, suddenly, Misty wriggles free and slaps the boy’s shoulders on the red vinyl mat. “Whew! That was fun,” she says, shaking the kinks out of her arms. “There’s nothing better than beating someone and knowing it was only you.” And Misty is well-acquainted with the thrill of winning in this one-on- one sport: She’s been besting Aragon teammates regularly for more than two years.

Opposing coaches say things like, “Put ’em in the kitchen, where they belong,” notes Misty Stalley.
— Josie Lepe

As something of a pioneer, Misty Stalley has confronted physical, emotional, and social obstacles to achieve success. The 16-year-old powerhouse is one of a relatively small cadre of girls—some 5,000 nationwide—who take to the mat for their high school teams. But the numbers are increasing rapidly, up from just 100 a decade ago, explains Gary Abbott, special projects director for USA Wrestling, the sport’s national governing body. In fact, he says, wrestling is one of the fastest growing sports for girls in the country, and in 2004 in Athens, Greece, women will wrestle for the first time ever in the Olympics, leaving boxing as the last males-only event.

Still, girls’ participation in the sport remains slim compared with the 200,000 high school boys who wrestle. With so few participants, opportunities for all- girls squads are limited, so young women generally wind up tangling with boys. As a result, some coaches, parents, and teachers worry about inappropriate contact and the physical risks involved. A number of critics also contend that some girls enter the most intimate of sports only to grab attention or snag a date.

And stories abound of girls being mistreated. Two years ago, for example, a high school in Rochester, New Hampshire, canceled the remainder of wrestling season after boys persistently harassed a female teammate. Often, male wrestlers will forfeit a match rather than risk the embarrassment of being bested by a female.

Misty certainly has battled bigotry on and off the mat. Spectators have jeered, and coaches of opposing teams have hurled invectives at her. “There’s a lot of prejudice. They talk smack and try extra hard to intimidate. They say things like, ‘Put ’em in the kitchen, where they belong,’ ” notes Misty. “I’ve had coaches make fun of me and say I shouldn’t have come, which makes me mad. But it also makes me want to win.”

In Aragon High’s steel-and-concrete locker room on a Wednesday afternoon in mid- December, Misty and her friend Elena Maskalik shed their jeans and boots and slip into sweats and T-shirts. They remove their gold-stud earrings because if a post were to get rammed into someone’s neck during a bout, “you could bust an artery,” Elena explains. Misty tucks books into her gym bag, braids her hair, and laces up her sneakers, completing the transformation from typical teen to fierce competitor. Slamming her locker shut, she revels in last night’s 78-6 victory against neighboring Woodside High. “We kicked the crap out of them,” she boasts. Finally, the two girls disinfect their shoes with a chlorine scrub and slather germ-killing lotion on their faces to guard against impetigo and ringworm.

Fighting off skin diseases has been the least of Misty’s worries as one of four girls on the 32-member Aragon team. During her very first competition freshman year, she got the message that she wasn’t welcome. At that match, her male opponent picked her up and hurled her to the floor face first, she recalls. “He said: ‘OK bitch, I’m going to show you why girls shouldn’t be here.’ ”

During her first competition, Misty Stalley got the message she wasn’t welcome. Her male opponent picked her up and hurled her to the floor face first.

Generally, though, Misty’s own teammates are more buddies than bullies. Today, she’s wrestling Tim Zasly, who considers her a friend. The two register around the same number on the scale—wrestlers are grouped in 14 weight classes—so it makes sense for them to square off. They take their positions, a whistle blows, and after a minute or two, Tim pins Misty flat on her back, holding her arms over her head in a move called the “Saturday night special.” “I’m her toy,” he kids as Misty wraps her legs around his head. “She makes me feel like a piece of meat.”

Steve Sweatt, a senior and Misty’s ex-boyfriend, stands on the sidelines, mopping his forehead after a tough round. He admires Misty but admits that wrestling girls has been an adjustment. “Sometimes you feel weird ’cause you don’t know what you should or shouldn’t do,” he notes. “With girls, you don’t want them to go, ‘Oh, he’s gonna touch my chest.’ ” Actually, Misty and her female teammates have had to deal with some inappropriate touching. “Sometimes they ‘miss’ your leg and grab something else,’’ Misty explains. “A few guys have groped.”

Some who support girl wrestlers say they’d be better off competing only against other girls. But the 165-pound Misty often bests her male opponents.
—Josie Lepe

Misty’s dad, Duane Stalley, confesses to feeling uneasy about the intimacy the sport requires. “I was annoyed that she has to have her hands on boys and they have to have their hands on her,” he says. Misty’s mother, Susan, is more concerned about the physical danger, worrying whenever her daughter has to “go up against a big guy who’s not very nice.” Despite their reservations, though, Misty’s parents still cheer her on at every meet possible.

Most members of the male-dominated wrestling community have not been as sympathetic, says Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. “We always assume the reason sports are segregated is to protect women. But I argue it’s to protect males. Wrestling puts boys in a no-win situation,” she explains. “If they beat a girl, so what? If they lose, their very manhood is called into question.”

Female wrestlers face a similar bind. Some male teammates, coaches, and audience members call such girls’ femininity into question, according to Kane. Others take the opposite tack, going so far as to claim that the only reason girls join mostly male teams is to find boyfriends, she says.

Kent Bailo, director of the United States Girls’ Wrestling Association, has also heard that allegation but flat-out rejects it. Like many sports, wrestling is so demanding that anyone who approaches it casually won’t last long. “Nobody,” he says, “ever shook hands in a wrestling match to get a date for the prom.”

A handshake is actually what got Misty into the sport. When Aragon High’s wrestling coach, Carl Pastore, felt her grip at a meet-and-greet session for coaches and prospective athletes two and a half years ago, he suggested she try out for the team. Misty was looking for a sport that would play to her strengths—a muscular build and a dancer’s natural flexibility—and figured she’d give it a shot.

While many coaches begrudgingly let girls sign up, Pastore’s welcoming attitude has attracted an unusually high number of young women to his team. (Most high school wrestling teams have no girls at all or just one or two.) A former wrestler himself, he believes girls should have an opportunity to savor the sport he loves. And he respects those who stick it out. “You know in two days if you’re tough enough or not,” he says, springing around the floor, correcting athletes’ positions during practice. “In wrestling, there’s no ball to pass, no water to resist. No devices. It’s your hands vs. their hands, and when you lose, it’s your loss.”

Pastore later notes that Misty is stronger than a lot of boys on the team. “Misty has a shot at being special and being ranked on a national level against girls,” he says. “She has the attitude, desire, and the technique.” Though he doesn’t think she’ll be ready to wrestle with the best females in her weight class in the 2004 Olympics, Pastore is betting on her for 2008.

Getting there won’t be easy. Misty already practices every day and attends more than a dozen meets each season. And since joining the team, she’s broken her elbow, twisted her knees, and ripped muscles. “This sport is brutal, and there’s a lot of pain,” she says. Wrestlers also tend to have an obsession with weight. They want to tip the scales at the top of their class to be a formidable force, but there’s a catch: If they gain even a pound or two, they move up to another class, where they’re relatively small.

After practice one day, Elena and Misty bake cookies in the Stalleys’ roomy kitchen as the Red Hot Chili Peppers blast from the stereo. Though the five- foot-five-inch, 119-pound Elena is taste-testing the treats, she counts every calorie. For example, her diet today consisted only of a Power Bar, a Diet Snapple, cottage cheese, and egg whites. “This is the price you pay,” says the slender Elena, who is wrestling for the first time this year. “You want to be small, explosive, and aggressive. And to do that, you have to keep your weight minimal. The bottom line is you don’t want to lose [a match].”

‘I’ve had coaches make fun of me and say I shouldn’t have come, which makes me mad. But it also makes me want to win.’

Misty Stalley,
High school wrestler

Snatching a hot cookie from the tray, Misty says she no longer focuses on weight; she concentrates more on building strength and developing technique. “I used to not eat for five days straight,” she says. “It’s insanely unsafe. I don’t do that anymore.” At some tournaments, she adds, officials weigh athletes every couple of hours. She’s seen kids vomit or try to sweat off weight before stepping on the scale.

With all the pressures girl wrestlers face, some of their supporters argue that they’d be better off wrestling only other girls. USA Wrestling’s Gary Abbott supports females competing on mixed teams for now, but he wishes more states would follow the lead of Texas and Hawaii and set up separate squads. As it stands, female wrestlers often have to sit the bench or end up losing matches to much stronger opponents, so the coed format favors boys, he argues. It also drives girls away from trying the sport. “Young girls think they can do anything, and they’re right,” Abbott says. “But we are asking girls to practice and compete when they have a physical disadvantage.” He adds, however, that all- female teams and tournaments would draw more girls to the sport and allow for fairer competition.

In late December, hundreds of girls are gathered at Del Mar High School in San Jose for just the kind of competition Abbott advocates, an all-girls West Coast tournament. While some flex their muscles and ascend the scales, several wearing headgear and ear guards lift weights to warm up. Others do somersaults in a side room while waiting for their matches to begin.

Finally, one referee belts “Misty Stalley” into the microphone. In gray sweats and a T-shirt, Misty bounces around like a prizefighter about to enter the ring. Spectators in the stands train their eyes on the center mat, and Misty’s female teammates from Aragon High cheer her on.

If she wins this bout, she’ll snag the top prize for her weight class. Misty steps forward as a hard rain pelts the gymnasium roof. Both she and her competitor get into position, and after the whistle blows, Misty leans into the other girl, who is on all fours. She flips the girl over, and the two twist, gyrate, and grunt for several minutes.

Finally, Misty forces her opponent’s back to the mat, her face set in a steely glare. The referee blows the whistle, declaring Misty the victor. She marches off the mat and wipes sweat from her forehead, then plops down on the bleachers, exhausted. One tournament down and hundreds more to go.


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