Klessinger: Success of Olympic women will help sell the message of Jaynes and Randall

Updated: September 1, 2021

Photos: Leigh Jaynes (left) and Emma Randall have both wrestled and coached for USA Wrestling on the international level.

By John Klessinger

Standing in the fieldhouse at the Carl Poff TNT Wrestling Camp on the campus of Kutztown University, I was enamored by the passion of the women speaking to the group of approximately 500 wrestlers.

Emma Randall and Leigh Jaynes spoke with compassion and conviction about women’s wrestling. Leigh said more than once, “wrestling is wrestling,” when discussing the differences between boys and girls. Emma made it a point to tell the campers to “spread the word and tell others. Invite one person to practice.” I thought to myself, “how often is that done?”

How often does any of us tell a girl in school to come and try wrestling? The immediate answer is not often. But why not? Why not spread the word to anyone — boys or girls — that wrestling is great. A sport for anyone regardless of size, shape, height, weight, or gender. It is one of the few sports that takes “all-comers.”

You don’t have to be tall or fast, a seeming prerequisite for most sports. You really don’t have to be athletic. Some of the best wrestlers I have coached couldn’t chew gum and tie their shoes simultaneously. But they were tough as nails and worked their butts off. Wrestling rewards individuals who have grit and determination. What other sports can say the same?

Recently, the United States Olympic Team had one of the best, if not the best, performances of all time. Five American freestyle men medaled — David Taylor and Gable Stevenson, gold; Kyle Snyder, silver; Thomas Gilman and Kyle Dake, bronze.

Four American women earned Olympic medals: Tamyra Mensah Stock, gold, Adeline Gray, silver; Sara Hildebrandt and Helen Maroulis, bronze.

If you watched the Games, you were inspired and proud of our Olympic wrestlers. They demonstrated everything we want from ourselves. A never-ending will to keep moving forward. A refusal to give anything less than their best. More than once, I sat in my home on the verge of tears, watching our wrestlers. Each of them with their own set of challenges to get that far. They are examples of why all of us love the sport.

It is no secret that boys participation levels on the high school for wrestling has been on the decline for some time. Traditional high school wrestling powerhouse Pennsylvania has reduced the weight classes due to declining participation and forfeits in dual meets. My high school team, Warwick High School in Lititz, Pa., once was one of the best in the Lancaster-Lebanon League, forfeited nearly half of their weights last season.

Pennsylvania and Warwick aren’t the exceptions. It is happening in most states. Some people say it all goes back to Title IX. The 1972 landmark education amendment stated, “no person, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation.” College wrestling has been a victim of Title IX like many other non-revenue NCAA sports.

“Some would say that women’s wrestling saved men’s wrestling,” Leigh said. Emma added, “women’s wrestling has made wrestling as a whole more equitable and enticing to administrators.”

However, neither would say that is the sole motivation to grow women’s wrestling. Both agree the benefits are no different for girls than they are for boys.

“Women benefit from the sport in the same ways our male counterparts do. We gain confidence, discipline, leadership, resilience, patience through delayed gratification, and a community of support,” says Leigh.

Emma and Leigh’s paths to wrestling were drastically different. Emma started at a young age in Ohio.

“I was jealous of the fun my brother had in practice,” she said. “But, as soon as I stepped on the mat, I fell in love with the sport.”

Emma competed at Lock Haven University in college. She then moved on to coach with the USA Women’s Freestyle team. Emma has coached at the Pan Am Games, the World Championships and the 2016 Olympic Games. She now is the women’s head coach for the New York City Regional Training Center.

“Wrestling instilled within me a passion for learning, a resilient mindset, and humility,” she said. “The more time I spent on the mat wrestling, the more I realized I have to learn. I have been involved in this sport for over 20 years, and every day I learn from observing coaches and other athletes.”

Leigh didn’t start wrestling till her senior year at Rancocas Valley Regional High School in Mt. Holly, N.J.

“I was dared to wrestle by my high school wrestling coach in the cafeteria one day,” Leigh said. “He told me I looked tough, but he doubted I could even last two weeks in the wrestling room.”

As you could say, the rest is history. Leigh had a distinguished career on the U.S. Women’s Freestyle team, culminating in a bronze medal in the 2015 World Championship and Hall of Fame induction. She is now the head women’s coach at Delaware Valley College in Pennsylvania.

“I was placed in a group home at the age of 12,” she said. “I needed something hard to dig into. (Wrestling) really helped me focus on what was important to my individual success at first. I learned to set small goals for myself that would eventually lead to getting my hand raised. It was hard work, which in turn built character.”

In 2019, the National Federation of State High School Association (NFHS) reported that 21,124 girls participated in wrestling. Since 2013, female participation has increased nearly 300%.

Currently, 32 U.S. states hold some form of state championships (official). Additionally, 70 colleges offer girls wrestling, with 46 of those being NCAA programs.

The statistics don’t lie. Women’s wrestling is growing rapidly throughout the United States due to dedicated coaches and wrestlers focusing on providing opportunities for both girls and boys.

How do we continue to grow girls wrestling?

“When states sanction girls wrestling as a high school sport, then you really start to see more growth,” Leigh said, “But it could be as simple as inviting a sibling to a practice or camp.”

“Welcome everyone into your room,” Emma added. “Create a culture where we celebrate each other’s growth and support one another through struggle. Point out role models that your kids can connect with (i.e. race, gender, home state, etc.). Show pathways forward for every athlete (college pathways exist for both men and women),”

Growing girls wrestling, like reversing the trend of the declining numbers of boys, will require a multi-faceted approach.

“Instead of focusing on Title IX, I encourage you to think about how your local program could be more exciting, community-oriented, and inclusive,” Emma said. “How many kids can we get to fall in love with the sport and teach life skills along the way to? That’s the way we reverse this trend of colleges cutting programs.”

From experience, coaches and communities need to grow it by getting the word out. Walk around and recruit at youth sports events. Talk and solicit youth football, soccer, lacrosse, and other youth sport coaches. Ask them to talk to their players. Walk around the sidelines of games and talk to parents about wrestling. Create a pamphlet highlighting all the reasons why kids should wrestle. The reality is in many states, wrestling is not mainstream. Peoples’ knowledge of the sport is minimal. It is a foreign concept to a lot of parents. Educate them!

Within the school system, talk to elementary and middle school physical education teachers. Ask to speak to the classes. Bring a girl and boy wrestler in to talk about the benefits of wrestling. High school coaches need to encourage all students — boys and girls, to try wrestling. Once there is cooperation with high school coaches in committing to growing the sport for both genders, the numbers will go up and force more states to take action.

Both Emma and Leigh are ambassadors of the sport. Not only for girls but for the sport of wrestling in general. They recognize the opportunities for all kids, especially for young women right now. With the growth of women’s college wrestling, scholarship opportunities are increasing.

As we saw from Tokyo, the United States Women’s Olympic Team showcased the development of girls wrestling in the United States. Their performance validated what many wrestlers and coaches have already been doing. Even more significant, it shows the potential of what could result if the growth of women’s wrestling continues to improve.

At the end of the day, “wrestling is wrestling.” Any growth is good growth for wrestling. For any gender, wrestling is a life-altering sport. “The benefits for girls in the sport of wrestling are the same as the boys. Therefore, it would be silly to not afford the same opportunities for everyone,” Leigh pointed out.

“Just wrestle” is the mantra. It is on T-shirts and bumper stickers. Truer words could not be spoken. From there, it all works out, and we find out we become a better person than we ever thought possible. Grow women’s wrestling. Grow the sport. Be an advocate for wrestling so our future generations can reap the benefits as we did.

(John Klessinger is a teacher and wrestling coach at South River High School in Maryland. You can follow him on Instagram @coachkless and like his Facebook page “Coach Kless”.)