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Wrestling for girls is overdue in Ohio

The thought certainly doesn’t evoke much excitement for parents.

Watching their daughter or son run onto a wrestling mat to face what is often a bigger, more built wrestler can be a tough sight to endure. Furthermore, watching them being twisted, lifted in the air, slammed and pinned would not be a fun experience.

Sure, it may be the life of a high school wrestler, but there’s often a different feeling for fans when it’s a kid who looks like a grown man against a boy still working his way through puberty.

That feeling changes even more for fans — and those competing — when it’s a female versus a male in what can be a violent sport.

That’s not to say girls can’t hang with the boys. Female wrestlers have reached the state tournament twice in the past 10 years — Paige Nemec in 2010 and Olivia Shore last year. Both won a match at state, and Shore was just a sophomore when she qualified, an incredible feat for any wrestler — boy or girl.

That said, both of them wrestled in the 106-pound weight class (the lightest for Ohio high schools), and they are an exception to an otherwise irregular and unfair matchup. The Ohio High School Wrestling Coaches Association and president Dean Conley are ready to change that scenario.

The OHSWCA announced on Tuesday its sponsorship of a Girls State Wrestling Tournament, in hopes of both setting the stage for an all-girls wrestling division and helping more females enjoy the benefits of one of the world’s oldest sports.

Conley, who turned the Canfield Cardinals into a state power during his 18-year tenure (2000-2017) as head coach, has been involved in the sport since he was in fifth grade. He knows the benefits of wrestling as well as anyone.

“I don’t think there’s a tougher sport on the planet,” he said, “so if those young ladies and women can learn the same things that we’ve learned from it — help us be better people and better athletes — we’re excited about that. I think it’s going to have the same effect that it did on us.”

And it’s about time Ohio gets with the program.

Conley said there are other states that have thousands of female wrestlers, but Ohio only had around 240 last season. A level playing field could open the door for an influx of participants, and while there may be skeptics, the growth of wrestling is a good thing.

While looked at as barbaric or gross by some, wrestling actually provides a wealth of benefits. The one-on-one competition can create both confidence and humility. Confidence comes from facing the daunting task of going head-to-head in front of hundreds of people, but winning is hard to accomplish, hence the humility. It takes a relentless work ethic to have any success at all, something wrestlers can take into other areas of life.

The physical skills stem from understanding the limits of one’s body, not to mention improved coordination, balance, strength and grasping the concept of leverage, just to name a few.

Hubbard’s Amber Flynn, a soon-to-be junior on the Eagles’ wrestling team, has been taking part in the sport since she was 4. She said people often ask her why she does it, and as the younger sister of five brothers (and four sisters), her answer was simple.

“I like to beat up boys,” she said with a laugh.

Truth be told, boys are in a difficult situation as well — one that is really a lose-lose scenario. If a guy wins, he just manhandled a female, something most boys are taught never to do. If he loses, he’ll likely be ridiculed by friends and teammates for losing to a girl. No, it’s not right, but it’s reality.

A new division could change that — and do much more.

Flynn said she enjoys the challenges it takes to be competitive. She doesn’t mind wrestling boys, but the 15-year-old admits the competition is improving as she gets older. That’s part of why she often competes in all-girls tournaments. Now, instead of traveling to Michigan and West Virginia to take part in them, she can make the 2-hour and 30-minute trip to Hilliard Davidson High School — the site of the 2020 Girls State Wrestling Tournament on Feb. 22-23. Maybe she’ll even have some teammates to join her.

“I have a couple friends that say they want to wrestle, but their parents won’t let them,” said Flynn, who added that she thinks an all-girls tournament could change their thinking.

Again, this event may be slightly overdue for Ohio, but the fact that it’s happening is a huge step in the right direction for everyone involved. Making sure it’s a success is going to be up to more than Conley and the OHSWCA. Families across the state have to embrace girls in the the sport, much like when society accepted females playing other high school sports such as softball, track and basketball back in the 1970s.

Yes, wrestling is a physical sport and far different than any other girls compete in at the high school level, but that’s part of why this is a step in the right direction. Times are changing, and so should our views on female athletics.

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