Do you see a wrestler or a woman wrestling?

Updated: May 1, 2013

By Sandy Stevens

Helen Maroulis (right)

Helen Maroulis (right)



FILA welcomed women to its organization more than three decades ago, and USA Wrestling honored its female pioneers at the Open Championships last month in Las Vegas, but make no mistake: Female athletes are still wrestling with stereotypes, at home and abroad.

USA head women’s coach Terry Steiner sees strong chauvinistic attitudes throughout the world, despite the strength of the women’s movement.

“At one major (European) championship, they gave out a ‘Prettiest Wrestler’ award,” Steiner said.             “Fortunately, the winner refused it.

“At another tournament, they gave out vacuum cleaners to the winners.”

Despite the fact that the 2012 Olympics included more female than male athletes, women wrestlers in particular battle stereotypes. “I see that attitude more within the wrestling world than without,” Steiner stressed.

“There’s still such a male bias and a stigma — maybe not a bias against, but certainly not for it. Inside the sport, I think we’re still segregating it too much.”

Put some of the blame on coaches.

Steiner recently heard from two sisters whose family had moved to Steiner’s home state of North Dakota. The local wrestling club’s director wouldn’t allow the girls to join.

“I don’t want a boy touching a girl like that,” the club coach explained.

“ ‘Do you want a boy touching another boy like that?’ ” Steiner responded. “ ‘Why are we even talking about that?’

“Coaches are uncomfortable because they haven’t spent time thinking about the situation and all of a sudden it becomes a problem for their boys,” he said.  “As long as my purpose is right, there are no issues. I wouldn’t think twice if my daughter wanted to wrestle.”

He tells coaches, “Look at what wrestling has done for you. What it’s done for me is teach me how to deal with adversity. Why restrict that to half the population?”

Promoting women’s wrestling is like a religion, Steiner said. “You can’t sell someone on it until they see the value in it.

Save some of the blame for the media, said World Cup and U.S. Open champion Helen Maroulis, who began wrestling at age 7 in Rockville, Md. Competing on the boys’ team, she placed twice in state before spending her senior year at the Northern Michigan Regional Training Center.

Maroulis recently analyzed studies of the media’s approach to female athletes for a Social Research Methods term paper at Simon Fraser University.

Those studies revealed a wide range of troubling facts.

Internationally, for example, women athletes receive just nine percent of sports coverage; an attitude prevails that a sport like figure skating is more appropriate than wrestling for women; both sexes tended to be presented as physically strong, but women were also presented as emotional and dependent on men (coaches, fathers) for their success; and much, much more.

Sometime it’s parents who put up a barrier, Steiner said. The father of Patricia Miranda, the first American woman wrestler to receive a wrestling Olympic medal (bronze, 2004), initially opposed her involvement and once threatened to sue her high school for allowing his daughter to wrestle on the boys’ team. He eventually allowed her to wrestle as long as she maintained a 4.0 GPA.

Yet in Asian countries, Steiner pointed out, wrestling is considered just another martial art.

“In our country, parents say they don’t want their girls to wrestle, yet they’ll send them across town to take karate lessons,” he said.

“A lot of people are looking for reasons not to support (women’s wrestling),” Steiner said. “That’s why I tell our wrestlers that their actions on and off the mat, their sportsmanship, their professionalism, are going to be more scrutinized (than that of male wrestlers).”

And they should expect to continue battling stereotypes.

Not long ago, a journalist came up to Maroulis after a loss.

“It’s OK,” he declared. “You were the prettier wrestler.”

“I wanted to say, ‘Are you kidding?’ Maroulis said. “I didn’t enter a beauty contest.”