Are there enough young women wrestlers to fill growing college opportunities?

Updated: November 21, 2019

Photo: Lee Miracle (right) became Campbellsville’s first coach in 2013 and led the Kentucky school to a Women’s Collegiate Wrestling Association title in 2018.

By Craig Sesker

Women’s freestyle wrestling will be contested for the fifth time at an Olympic Games next year in Tokyo.

Since it became an Olympic sport in 2004, female participation has experienced a steady increase in the United States. But over the last few years, the numbers have exploded.

In the 2018-19 school year, participation increased a whopping 27.5 percent at the high school level. There were 21,124 girls who wrestled for high school teams last season. Nineteen states now sanction girls’ wrestling at the prep level.

“We are working to grow the scholastic opportunities across the United States, while also growing the collegiate system,” said Sally Roberts, a former World medalist and founder of “Wrestle Like A Girl.”

“Both of these efforts need to happen in close sequence so roster sizes can be filled, while new opportunities get developed. We need everyone to take an investment in getting the remaining 32 states sanctioned for growth of wrestling, equal access, equal opportunity and because wrestling creates leaders.”

That increase in participation is needed with more than 60 schools now offering women’s college programs. And just this past year saw the NCAA list women’s wrestling with Emerging Sports Status.

But this growing demand for women’s college wrestling is also raising this question: With the growing number of women’s college programs, are there enough girls coming out of high school to fill these programs?

“Women’s wrestling is growing at every level and I believe we will be fine,” U.S. National Women’s Coach Terry Steiner said. “Numbers at the high school level have gone way up and so have the number of USA Wrestling members who are female.

“That’s obviously great to see. We just need to keep growing to keep up — there have already been 13 new college programs added this year. I think we will have seven or eight more states sanctioning high school wrestling this year, so that definitely will help fill these college rosters.”

With so many new programs, the landscape has changed considerably.

“My gut says we have the numbers to fill the college programs,” Campbellsville University coach Lee Miracle said. “One of the issues will be finding enough good women’s coaches to fill the coaching positions. That will be important for the young girls to be able to have a good college experience and for these new programs to grow and thrive.”

Building those numbers to fill college roster spots also will hinge in part on available scholarships.

Like at most levels of men’s collegiate wrestling, many schools offer athletic scholarships for women’s wrestlers. But many of the athletes also have to pay for a majority of their schooling.

Miracle, whose daughter Kayla won four WCWA titles for Campbellsville  and competed in the 2019 World Championships, said his Kentucky school is a fully-funded NAIA school that has the maximum of 10 scholarships available for women’s wrestling. He said he divides the scholarships up however he needs to among his athletes. The Tigers have 38 wrestlers listed on their roster.

Past U.S. National Team member Ashley Sword, now the head coach at Life University, said her program isn’t fully funded, but does have several levels of athletic scholarships available. She splits up the scholarships among her 30-member squad.

“There is a fallacy that because women’s wrestling is growing that there are unlimited scholarships available,” Sword said. “Many athletes are led to believe they can get very high dollars scholarship amounts based on being a wrestler, regardless of skill level. While there are scholarship dollars available, there are very few ‘full rides’ available.”

Sword said it costs $21,000 a year for tuition, fees and housing to attend Life University. Life is located just outside Atlanta.

There are numerous ways for athletes to help cover their costs. Athletes are eligible for grants and loans, and they can earn academic scholarships. They can also earn money through work study programs at their schools to help pay their tuition.

Sword said the increased participation at the prep level does make it easier to recruit for a college coach.

“There obviously is a bigger pool of athletes now and that definitely helps,” she said. “We had the No. 2 recruiting class this year, but of course they still have to perform. But it’s a good place to start.”