Welcome to the Mat

Inaugural girls wrestling team is breaking gender barriers and tackling social norms

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Rhyen Standridge

FACE OFF: Sophia Tran takes her stance as she would for the start of a match. Being the only female wrestler who competed last season, the senior sets and example for the new members.

By Natalie Walsh, Francis Howell Central High School

Eye to eye. Silence settles over the gymnasium as the referee places his arm between the two opponents. Hearts are racing as anticipation and anxiety settles in for the match. Knees bent, arms in position, waiting for the referee to let hell break loose; cut the strings holding them back and let what needs to be done, be done.

Wrestling is a sport like no other. It requires dedication to technique and mental toughness. Throughout school history, there have only ever been male wrestlers until last year. The first female wrestler to step foot onto the mats was Sophia Tran as a junior in the 2018-2019 season. She is excited to perform her senior year in the 2019-2020 season.

“I joined wrestling because … I like doing combat sports and it seemed fun to do,” Tran said. “I was told by a former teammate that girls were able to do it [that season], so I took advantage of it.”

Of course, her desire to join wrestling accompanied by fear which was faced and overcome. Worrying about being the only girl and meeting expectations were just a few of the many.

“My fears was probably that I wasn’t going to be good enough and that I would let everyone down,” Tran said. “There was a lot of pressure on me… I had to meet people’s expectations because I was the only girl.”

Once facing this adversity, she joined the team and made a decision that impacted her athletics. But being the only female wrestler in the building, there was not enough to make a seperate program for girls.

Until now.

There are currently 16 girls competing in the wrestling program. Of the 16 girls in the program, there are several different reasons as to why they joined. For sophomore Mary Kate Neal, wrestling would be a sport that would help her in other aspects of her athletic career.

“I thought it would be good for soccer to make me more aggressive and give me more stamina,” Neal said.

WIth practices every day in the weightroom and on the mats, wrestling has proven to be a physical challenge for any contestants, yet what many forget about is the mental strength required to compete in this devouring sport.

“To me, mental toughness is telling yourself sometimes to become mentally strong,” Tran said. “I feel like you have to tell yourself that more than your peers because you’ll never get better if you rely on others.”

Overcoming any mental obstacles and physical fatigue may have scared off female wrestlers in the past, but not anymore. This may be the first female team at our school, but other schools and districts have had female teams for several seasons with more that two girls on their teams.

With this being the first team at FHC, the other programs they will face have years of experience on their backs. This is a common fear amongst the new members of our team who have never competed before.

“I’m new to this and I don’t know much. There are girls from last year that we will be wrestling because other schools had wrestling last year and it wasn’t until this year that we got it,” Neal said.

No wrestling experience, physical adversity, mental pain; all reasons not to join, but none are the reason females haven’t joined in the past. What’s the reason? Being female.

“I was terrified of joining,” Tran said. “I was scared that I wouldn’t be accepted by the coaches and the boys and that they would think weird of me.”

Females have a rocky history in male dominated sports. Even today, women encounter struggles when entering sport that are predominantly male. Whether it be because of coaches who only want boys on their teams or players who only want male teammates, the hardships continue. This small step from girls at FHC is believed by the players to be headed in a better direction for females everywhere.

“In a male dominated sport, I am setting an example that girls can do anything that a guy can do,” Tran said. “For wrestling, it’s all about skill, speed and moving around and that is something everyone is capable of doing which doesn’t make is only a male sport.”

Not only do these girls believe they can match their male counterparts, but also that they can take this sport to a different level. Junior Paige VanDaele feels girls have things to offer that may be new and refreshing to the sport.

“It’s not just for males. We can take it and we can make it better… we can take it and do more with it or go to more extremes,” VanDaele said.

But at Francis Howell Central, a culture and environment has developed where female athletes are recognized for their worth. The boys, as the female wrestlers account, are nothing but accepting.

Regardless of our accepting culture, discrimination amongst genders happens in our society every day and it takes a brave soul to break the barriers to start something new.

“I think I have impacted girls wrestling here at FHC. I think when people see others doing something or starting something new, they feel more comfortable starting it because [someone] has already broken the ice for [them],” Tran said.

Now, with 15 other girls falling in Tran’s footsteps, motivation for people to do things they never would have done before it settling into our society. On and off of the mats.

“[Stepping out of your comfort zone is] important because you get to try things you would never normally do,” VanDaele said. “If you think that something is cool, then you should just take a chance with it. If you don’t take it, then you will probably miss out on something that you wish you had taken the chance for.”

This story was originally published on FHC Today on January 4, 2020.