By Dustin Hockensmith pennlive.com
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Dustin Hockensmith reports, "There's a huge movement across the country to get every state to recognize the sport and satisfy a growing demand from girls to have the same opportunities as boys."
If 12-year-old Adalynn Smith were a boy, she would be expected, maybe even encouraged, to follow in her father’s footsteps.
Her dad, Adam Smith, a former state champion wrestler from Newport and one of the greats in Perry County history, has immersed himself in wrestling his entire life. After high school, Smith qualified for three NCAA tournaments, was a team captain at Penn State and went on to work for the Nittany Lions program.
But when his daughter said she wanted to wrestle, he wasn't sure how he felt about it.
Adalynn said she’d watched her dad teach private lessons and fell in love with the sport. She persisted for years and eventually succeeded in getting to wrestle – with one condition.
"We were just more concerned and said, ‘We don’t mind if you wrestle, but we want you wrestling girls,’” Adam Smith said.
She wrestled at a novice girls’ tournament at Newport High School Sunday. One of the few opportunities available to girls, it attracted about 60 wrestlers, from kindergarten to high-school age – from as far as Wyoming Seminary, the Lehigh Valley and Central Mountain High School.
“If you want to be a female novice wrestler coming into the sport, it’s really, really limited right now,” Smith said. “You’re going to be a) wrestling boys or b) traveling a good bit.”
“My ideal outcome is not for her to be wrestling boys,” Smith said. “I don’t think it’s spectacular for either the girl or the boy, specifically the older you get. It’s hard to get a winner in that situation.”
Pennsylvania is one of 31 states that does not yet recognize girls’ wrestling as a sport, which leaves girls with two choices: wrestle with boys or not at all.
It’s a complicated decision for families of girls who are interested in the sport. Women’s wrestling is the fastest-growing sport in the United States, with 21,124 women wrestlers last year, an increase of 242% from 2013.
But the future of girls' wrestling in Pennsylvania is cloudy.
Some coaches say they are worried that Pennsylvania, a national leader in wrestling, is falling behind other states that are moving forward with programs for girls. Critics say Pennsylvania’s governing body of high school sports must do more to promote opportunities for girls’ wrestling.
Last season, the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association said, 206 girls participated in wrestling at the varsity level, spread over 450-plus schools. Advocates and many coaches believe the number would grow exponentially if girls’ wrestling were recognized as its own sport.
There's a huge movement across the country to get every state to recognize the sport and satisfy a growing demand from girls to have the same opportunities as boys.
“The value of this sport transcends gender,” said United States women’s national team coach Terry Steiner. "Why would we want to limit it to half the population?”
Girls’ wrestling grew 27.5% from 2018 to ’19, according to USA Wrestling figures. Georgia, Oregon, Missouri, Maine, Massachusetts and New Jersey all held official girls’ high school championships for the first time.
Nationwide, 19 states held tournaments for girls wrestling last season, up from six in 2014, and other states made progress in that direction.
Arkansas offered no wrestling at all for boys or girls before 2008, but somehow jumped ahead of Pennsylvania on the girls’ side.
“Arkansas beat Pennsylvania to the punch in something in wrestling,” historian and Hall of Fame writer Jason Bryant said. “That right there should tell you something. All it takes is to open the doors, because Pennsylvania would dominate pretty quickly.”
That begs the question: Why is one of the national leaders in the sport not acting faster to create more opportunities for girls?
“We consider ourselves at the forefront when it comes to wrestling, but that’s obviously an area we’re lagging behind,” said Biff Walizer, the varsity coach at Central Mountain and a former All-American at Penn State. “And that’s unfortunate to see other states take the lead when I consider Pennsylvania to be the No. 1 high school wrestling state.”
CHICKEN AND THE EGG Bob Lombardi, executive director of the PIAA, and Mark Byers, the chief operating officer who oversees wrestling, liken the argument for girls’ wrestling to the chicken and the egg. Which should come first, sanctioning the sport to grow participation or proving that enough interest exists to warrant action from the PIAA?
That question also must be asked in the context of the PIAA’s bylaws, Lombardi said.
Those rules dictate that 100 schools must sponsor the sport before they can consider it. Sponsorship means appointing a coach, setting a practice schedule, and using at least half the PIAA’s allotted points for competition.
The PIAA exists to serve its membership, Lombardi added, and the numbers at the varsity level simply don’t yet warrant action.
“You need to pass the fertilizer around the local areas and start seeing more people in the wrestling rooms and more participation, and we’re not seeing it,” Lombardi said.
“The advocates are out there, ‘Oh, yeah, you can change it and do it a different way.’ That’s not an easy sell to schools.”
Chris Atkinson is the head wrestling coach at Souderton High School and one of Pennsylvania’s most avid proponents of girls’ wrestling. Until recently, he served as women’s director for Pennsylvania USA Wrestling. Atkinson said a recent meeting with Byers revealed a hard truth about the PIAA’s stance.
“That was like a road block,” Atkinson said. “It was like, ‘Wait a minute.’ It was a killer for us. Pennsylvania has a backwards model. They want proof that the numbers are there before they go ahead and sanction the sport.”
Nazareth coach Dave Crowell is one of the most successful high school coaches in Pennsylvania history, as well as a member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. He respects the PIAA’s position but agrees that the chicken-and-egg argument needs to be flipped.
“Right now, I can see from the people making the decision saying, we have to wait until we get enough girls,” Crowell said. “The problem is, unless they see an opportunity, you may not get the girls. So, how do you go about doing this thing? I personally think you’ve got to offer it first.”
The logistics are far from clear on steps to move forward. How will the competition work? If a school does sponsor a girls’ program, how would they compete, and against whom?
There are also resource issues to resolve in every high school, and the proper push might start right there, Lombardi added.
“A lot of the questions can be answered locally,” Lombardi said. “Top-down isn’t going to work here. It really needs to be a grassroots movement.”
‘RELUCTANT TO CHANGE’ The PIAA has been clear on its position from the outset, but advocates ask: Isn’t feeding wrestling’s biggest source of growth worth a deeper look?
There’s also an enduring criticism that the PIAA is too slow to move and too resistant to change and that it is passing the buck to schools instead.
Ronnie Perry is a former NCAA runner-up at Lock Haven who went to Solanco High School. In May, Lock Haven announced that Perry would lead the launch of a women’s program.
The idea was to beat the competition to it, the reverse of the PIAA's approach. Lock Haven wanted to not only announce its launch, but to do it as quickly as possible.