The growing popularity of girls wrestling


Photo by Elissa Eaton

Wrestling has always been a sport with very little female presence. It wasn’t until this year that the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) sanctioned girls wrestling as a sport. This year, 2022, also marks the 50th anniversary of Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination in any school activities. On the anniversary of this historic legislation, girls wrestling is beginning to expand in high schools across Illinois. 

Before girls wrestling was an IHSA sport, wrestling was co-ed at the high school level, meaning girls and boys wrestled each other as long as they were in the same weight class. Despite this, the sport has been largely dominated by males. However, with the recent induction of girls wrestling, there are more female athletes showing interest in the sport. AJ Fuller, a Naperville North High School junior on the wrestling team, talked about how she is breaking down gender barriers. 

“Something that I enjoy about it is proving that girls can wrestle too, it’s not just for boys,” Fuller said. 

Although girls wrestling is on the rise within the state, female participation is still low at Naperville North. Tom Champion, the wrestling head coach, attributed the small numbers to a lack of knowledge of the sport’s existence. 

“I think in order for this to happen, we have to publicize it. I spoke to a small group of female athletes who very candidly said they didn’t even know it was an option,” Champion said. 

In hopes of getting more interest, NNHS hosted a girls wrestling clinic led by North Central College wrestling coach Amanda Martinez on May 3. Martinez talked about how she started wrestling as a high school upperclassmen and still ended up being successful in the sport. She also played softball in college, but she found wrestling to be her favorite. 

“I didn’t start wrestling until my junior year of high school and this past year I got to compete in the Olympic Trials, so it really doesn’t matter when you start,” Martinez said. “I did a lot of sports growing up, and I’d say wrestling is one of the few sports where I can just put everything out there and I love it in a different way.”

As a qualifier for the Olympic Trials, Martinez has found immense success from wrestling, having competed in Serbia and participated in a wrestling camp in Ukraine. Martinez elaborated on how wrestling has changed her life.

“It’s crazy how much my life switched from doing wrestling. I wouldn’t say I would’ve had that same stuff if I was just really good at softball. I got to go to a couple states for my college [softball] team but it was nothing compared to what wrestling did for me,” Martinez said. 

Another woman who led the clinic was NCC wrestler Emma Grimm. Grimm grew up in Iowa, where wrestling is much more common than in Illinois. She talked about the satisfaction that she receives from wrestling.

“The sport really gives you this pride and this feeling when you lay your head down at night that you just feel like you accomplished something every day,” Grimm said. “It’s truly awesome because it makes me a better person and a better athlete.” 

Although wrestling is more of an individual sport than a team sport, the camaraderie is still very prevalent. Martinez elaborated on how she has met lifelong friends from wrestling. 

“There’s no other sport where you’re banging someone’s head into the mat and you guys are besties right after. You get so close from it. I’ve met so many amazing people through this sport,” Martinez said. 

Champion summarized one of the greatest moments of a wrestling match: wrestling under a spotlight. It’s a tradition in which there’s a single match happening and the room is completely dark except for the match illuminated by a spotlight. He believes that female athletes should be able to experience this too. 

“It’s one of the best feelings in the world to have the entire crowd focused on you. In no other sport does that happen. There’s nothing like being under a spotlight and saying ‘I did this,’” Champion said. 

With the future of girls wrestling still uncertain at NNHS, there are a lot of unanswered questions and firsts that have yet to happen. Champion begs the question of who those athletes will be.

“Naperville North has never had a varsity girl win a match, Naperville North has obviously never had a girl state qualifier or girls placer or girls champ, so who’s going to be the first? They might be in the building right now,” Champion said.