When will a ‘wrestling state’ like Iowa officially sanction girls wrestling?

By Mike Finn
Updated: September 21, 2020

Photo: The first of two Iowa girls state high school tournaments, presented by the Iowa Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association, was held in 2019 in Waverly, Iowa. The number of girls competing in 2020 doubled in numbers.

Note: The following story appeared in the September issue of WIN Magazine. Click here to subscribe to WIN, which will produce its annual College/High School Preview issue on Oct. 2, 2020.

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By Jim Nelson

The first message Jean Berger wants to convey to wrestling fans in Iowa is she is on their side.

As the Executive Director of the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union, Berger’s job is to create, find and provide opportunities to showcase the Iowa girl.

Wrestling, she believes, will be one of those opportunities in the future.

Berger was in attendance when the Iowa Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association sponsored the first Iowa girls’ high school state tournament in 2019 in Waverly and took note of the growth of the second IWCOA girls’ state tournament in 2020 that nearly tripled in size.

The state of Iowa features strong boys wrestling traditions on both the high school and college level and many girls wrestling fans wonder when the Hawkeye state will officially adopt the sport for girls on the high school level. Similar movements are happening in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio.

As for now, Iowa will remain as one of the 23 states that does not sponsor girls wrestling and it will probably remain that way for up to at least three years according to IGHSAU procedures in addition to the current environment involving the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jean Berger

“It is getting there, and maybe it will get there soon,” Berger said in a recent interview with WIN Magazine.

Passionate is how Berger describes the people behind the movement to get the girls’ wrestling sponsored in Iowa.

The movement was barreling down the tracks at a high rate in the spring and then COVID-19 hit.

“I haven’t really heard anything since wrestling season ended,” Berger said. “I haven’t heard from any other schools who would like to add it in that time. In fairness, wrestling and basketball ended and COVID hit.”

Does she anticipate the movement to begin moving forward again when the pandemic is eventually controlled or under control in the United States?

“Absolutely,” Berger said. “To be fair, this isn’t on anybody’s school radar currently.”

But having the IGHSAU sponsor girls’ wrestling involves a process that hasn’t quite reached the first criteria and that is getting a sufficient number of IGHSAU member schools to send in written letters of commitment saying they will sponsor girls’ wrestling.

The rule is 15 percent of IGHSAU member institutions have to submit letters of commitment, which accounts for roughly 50 schools in Iowa. As of now, Berger says she has received 17 of those letters with an additional 15 having done so verbally.

“I’ve said this before, there are a lot of organizations interested in adding high school wrestling, but I don’t know if they are working together,” Berger said. “We have four or five different organizations moving in four or five different ways. It would be different if it was one organization moving the sport along.

“We have parents start to campaign and we get a lot of emails and things and we try to explain this is  membership driven. Our member schools have a process to go through if they want to add a new sport.”

Those letters of commitment start with any IGHSAU member school, through its Superintendent or administrative leaders, submitting a proposal that must be a maximum of 30 pages, excluding letters of commitment and must include the following:

  • A sample budget outlining financial costs;
  • A proposed time-line for implementation of the sport to interscholastic status in the district;
  • Competitive opportunities;
  • Facility availability or plans;
  • General competition rules;
  • Suggested IGHSAU regulations (playing and practice season, coaching requirements, format for the sport, maximum contests, competition structure);
  • The signatures of the district school board president, superintendent and the athletics director of the institution.

There are other factors the IGHSAU considers such as health and safety; growth potential; economic viability of the proposal; and other sports being evaluated.

“We kind of approach it from a bigger perspective,” Berger said. “What other opportunities are out there for our girls? First from our existing sports, participation in soccer, tennis and golf are growing.

“I also don’t know if we are looking at one particular sport or activity for girls to add. We have heard from rugby, lacrosse and competitive cheer. There are parents besides wrestling parents and schools that have different programs that they would probably like to be considered.

“I don’t know if they are quite as organized or maybe as passionate as wrestling. In Iowa, we know wrestling. It is a lot more familiar to our member schools than lacrosse.”

After proposals to sponsor a new sport are turned in the IGHSAU will provide feedback and then the IGHSAU Board of Directors and Berger would make a final determination on the proposal for sanctioning a new sport.

The time-line process for submitting proposals can be found in the chart on this page.

Berger noted that it took soccer and bowling several years once the movement began to become sanctioned in Iowa and mentioned it took nearly five years of campaigning for Kansas to sanction girls’ wrestling.

Berger also understands these are not the answers that fans of Iowa girls’ wrestling want to hear, but as executive director she has questions that she wants to be answered, too.

For example, what style will it be? Freestyle or folkstyle? And if it is freestyle, who will be the officials?  What will be the weight classes, because they most certainly won’t mirror the boys’?

“There are a lot of people within the communities that have been helpful and very positive and very willing to help move it along and understand the process,” Berger said. “They are helping us learn and grow as well. I’m very appreciative of them because I have learned a lot from these folks.”

But Berger’s final point drives to the core the IGHSAU belief of what an Iowa girl experience should be like.

For decades the Iowa girls’ volleyball, basketball and softball state championship events among the 10 sponsored sports by the IGHSAU have been the envy of its national equals.

“Early on I heard people say let’s just throw a mat down at the boys’ state tournament and let the girls wrestle on it,” Berger said. “That is not how we run a state championship at the Girls Union. We are about showcasing the talent of the Iowa girl. There are a lot of things we would want to ensure we had in place so that we can continue to move along and move forward with.

“When I mentioned whom will be the officials and who are they, we are not going to be somebody’s has been or some second choice. We don’t do it that way.

“We want our experience to be of a high level and we want to make the right decisions that it ensures that it is so we are not just going to throw a mat down and let them come.”

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