Women’s Wrestling in Central Oregon

The walls of Bend High were abuzz with energy as wrestlers, coaches and parents filed in for the annual Bend Kids and Cadets Wrestling Tournament. Athletes ages five to 15 gathered to rejoin the sport as the season officially opens. Bend High wrestlers clamored to prepare for and begin the event–an annual tradition and fundraising opportunity vital to their upcoming season’s success. 

Historically, the Bend High team has been a prosperous environment for female wrestlers, though the girls team typically comprises just a handful of athletes. This year, their numbers have more than doubled. The same can be said for the female presence at the kids’ tournament they hosted. The sport has always been male dominated, but this year the high school’s gym was lit up with not only the energy of boys, but also that of a little girl sporting a superhero singlet. Spectators watched as she dominated, pinning anyone who dared to face her. Then there were more girls – ponytails and braids, superheroes and princesses stepped onto the mat. 

Women have slowly entered the wrestling scene for the past 40 years. USA wrestling sent its first female wrestling team to the World Championships in 1989, according to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

“It has gone on an exponential pattern, meaning that it started really slow, and had been flatlining for quite a few years,” said Luke Larwin, head coach at Bend Senior High. He noted that only a handful of girls used to show interest in the sport, and this was largely because “there had not been a true competitive experience for them [to compete with other girls].” 

Larwin likens it to any other varsity level sport, recognizing that while there have been girls divisions of basketball, soccer and baseball, historically if a girl wanted to wrestle she would essentially be competing for a varsity boy’s spot. Weight classes and the skill-based nature of the sport made competition a possibility, yet girls were not having the success they deserved for the work they put in. A myriad of factors likely contributed, perhaps including biology or implicit bias. He stated that women’s wrestling finally became more accessible when “major geographic players,” (distinguished coaches and schools located in wrestling hotspots), began creating more opportunities for girls to compete, specifically with one another. Thanks to these efforts, women’s wrestling spread like wildfire on an international scale.

Still, the ratio of women to men in the sport is exceedingly low. Eunmi Kippley, a senior and team captain at Summit High School, said she would guess about 25% of students at her school are at least vaguely aware that they have a women’s wrestling program, and that it has likely never crossed most student’s minds. When it has, sometimes it has been stigmatized. Recently, Kippley told an acquaintance she wrestles. “He was like, ‘you dont look like you wrestle,’ but then I said I also do cross country, and he said ‘yeah you look like you do cross country.’”

Delilah Richards, a second year wrestler at Bend High, has run into similar conjectures with her classmates. She says that typically when she tells people she wrestles, “they are surprised and say that they would not expect that from me.” Not only do our schemas impact the way we view the surrounding world, but also our expectations of ourselves and others, instilling the mindset that only a certain “type” of person is likely to succeed in a particular activity. Thus, this may be a deterring factor to girls once they discover the sport is an option. Further, Richards explains she was at first doubtful, given the risk of physical and mental injury.

However, wrestling culture appears to have evolved considerably, even in the past few years. Not only has regulation of the intense weight cutting expectation allowed more athletes to maintain a healthy BMI and compete at their healthiest, but the sport has become more accommodating to participants in general. 

Coach Larwin, a wrestler himself from the time he entered first grade, acknowledged developments he felt most proud of within his own team. Acceptance of every athlete on the team has been emphasized, rewarding wrestlers for individual attributes: dedication, sportsmanship, attitude, leadership, team spirit and work ethic. Larwin and his staff have made a special effort to make every wrestler feel like a valuable member of the team, even when their contributions are not in the form of matches won. Some wrestlers shoot (a shot refers to the initiation of a takedown, worth two points in a match), and always score, others always show up for their team, and all are appreciated. Furthermore, opportunities in women’s wrestling have risen to an all time high and continue to climb. This, asserts the coach, has made it the most lucrative athletic opportunity for female athletes of today. 

According to research done by NCSA and the National Wrestling Coaches Association, the number of women wrestling in high school, 804 in 1994, has increased exponentially to 21,124. College coaches’ recruitment of female student athletes is at an all-time high as of 2023.

A key factor in making this possible: girls are no longer forced to wrestle boys, and in fact can choose to go their whole career without doing so. However, they are not prohibited from doing so if they feel comfortable. Valerie Bowman, a sophomore also beginning year two of wrestling at Bend High, says, “our policy isn’t that strict, it would actually be better for girls to wrestle a guy from time to time, just to learn something new and not wrestle the same person. But of course, if you don’t want to, it’s not a forced thing.”

When asked about their most memorable wrestling experiences, Larwin, Kippley, Richards and Bowerman all spoke of exhilarating moments on the mat, and of bonding with their teams through meaningful shared experiences. Each of them suggests women’s wrestling for any girl who is willing to put in the work. 

Regardless of background, wrestlers seem to agree that it’s worth a shot if you’re considering the sport. Who knows? You might even score.