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Wrestling with equality: wins over boys make for good stories, but female wrestlers need more opportunities

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  March 29, 2011 11:50 AM

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It must be something in the maple syrup. Last month, Rachel Hale became the latest Vermont girl to beat boys at their own game, when the 103-pound, 15-year-old freshwoman from Mount Anthony Union High School won the Vermont state wrestling championship. In an additional victory for respect, the boy who lost to her in the semifinals, 17-year-old Aaron Roucoulet of Rutland High School, was quoted as saying, "She has the best technique of anyone I’ve wrestled at 103."

Hale joined two girls in Alaska who in the last five years beat boys to win state wrestling titles, and a determined contingent of girls around the nation whose technique is so good that nearly every state has had a girl qualify for its state meet. Hale’s success also offers a window into a relatively obscure world of adolescent female competition in an ancient sport that dates back to the Olympics of 708 B.C. Women’s wrestling was added to the modern Olympics in 2004, but American high school girls have their own state tournaments in only five states.

Kent Bailo, the director of the United States Girls Wrestling Association, which fills in the gap by promoting independent state, regional, and national tournaments, says it is great when a handful of girls can make national news beating boys in light weight divisions, but there is literally a heavier side to the story. Past 120 pounds, girls virtually disappear from top-level contention as boys bulk up.

What would be more noteworthy than even Hale’s victory would be a richer support of girls wrestling. States that sanction girls tournaments with a full set of weight divisions like the boys, such as Hawaii, Washington, Texas and California, have between 400 and 1,700 girl wrestlers. No state without a tournament has more than 190, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Bailo, a wrestling referee for four decades said in an interview, "The girls are seeking the same things the boys want out of wrestling, being tough under pressure, being able to stand alone out there, not get too crushed by defeat, how to look yourself in the mirror to get better. You ask guys what they got out of wrestling and they go on for two hours, maybe two days about how the lessons they learned on the mat got them where they are today. If the lessons are that good for boys, why not let the girls have them?"

With a few more victories by the girls who can compete with the boys and with more state tournaments for girls, the answer will be easy to pin down. Hale, by the way, was not the only barrier-breaking girl this year in Vermont high school sports. The Stowe boys basketball team took on senior Hannah McNulty after the girls team was disbanded for lack of players to put on the court.

McNulty, who possibly would have hit the 1,000-point career mark on a girls team, was no token who sat at the end of the bench. She averaged five points a game, scoring 11 in one and forced an overtime in another with a 3-point shot. She told the Burlington Free Press, "At first it was a little weird because (teams) didn't want to guard me. I don't know if they didn't want to get shown up by a girl or hurt me. There are some teams that are a little timid or try to play really good and show me a message that I don't belong. I think I've proved them wrong."

Proving them wrong turned out to be quite a sweet Vermont story.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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