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Klingman: Women’s growth one of good things of COVID era
McKendree University (left) and Campbellsville captured the NCWWC and NAIA team championships, respectively, this past month. This happened at a time that the NCAA continues to call women’s wrestling an “emerging” sport, while the NAIA announced on April 9 that it was officially sanctioning women’s wrestling.
By Kyle Klingman
Now that it is somewhat over, it’s time to reflect on what just happened. It appears we got through the most bizarre and topsy-turvy era of college wrestling since the NCAA Championships were canceled from 1943 to 1945 due to World War II.
And it was all due to COVID-19, a global pandemic that forced us to make adjustments.
The NCAA Division I Championships were set to smash the all-time attendance record in 2020 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, but, as we all know, they were canceled. A tournament was held the following year in St. Louis with limited fans and we were back to “normal” this season.
The COVID relief year will still affect college wrestling as athletes decide whether to take the free season of eligibility they were granted. This will take some explaining in 25 years when we answer questions about five-time place winners at the national championships.
The Division II and III Championships were canceled in 2020 but each went in different directions last season. A Div. II tournament was held in St. Louis but with fewer participants. A Div. III tournament was hosted by the National Wrestling Coaches Association in Coralville, Iowa, but it wasn’t sanctioned by the NCAA.
Division III wrestling took the biggest hit. They lost back-to-back seasons of championships before rebounding this year with the first national tournament since 2019.
The men’s NAIA Championships haven’t missed a beat. They got their tournament in just before everything was canceled in 2020.
Women’s wrestling experienced the opposite. The National Collegiate Women’s Wrestling Championships (NCAA programs) were held and the NAIA women’s championships were canceled the following week.
The growth of women’s wrestling is a reason to be optimistic, but people need to understand what’s going on here. Many don’t know that women wrestle freestyle, the international form of the sport. That could make things interesting in a few years when fans wonder why there are different styles for men and women.
A women’s national tournament was held in 2004 with five teams before it turned into the Women’s Collegiate Wrestling Association (WCWA) Championships. Then it started to get confusing.
NCAA programs and NAIA programs hosted their own national championships, leaving questions about what the WCWA would do. The WCWA hosted a tournament in 2020 but eventually disbanded since programs were committed to their own national championships.
A women’s division at the Midlands Championships could become a makeshift WCWA Championships since all programs can participate. It was set to happen in 2021 but, due to COVID concerns, the tournament was canceled. This left questions about the direction of one of the most prestigious college tournaments in the country.
Today, there are 58 NCAA women’s programs, 43 NAIA, and 15 junior colleges. The University of Iowa announced that it’s adding women’s wrestling but that only brings the total number of Division I programs to three. There are also 34 states that have or will sponsor sanctioned high school girls wrestling.
This is an exciting trend but now colleges must figure out where all the recruits will come from. Women’s wrestling is still relatively new, which means that high school girls who tried the sport for a season aren’t willing to test the waters at the collegiate level … yet.
Some women’s college coaches have wondered if there are enough recruits to field all the teams that are being added. Some of the best girls in the country — like Kennedy and Korina Blades — are opting out of college wrestling. They will attend Arizona State and train out of the Sunkist Kids Regional Training Center to pursue international success.
And we haven’t even mentioned NIL (Name, Image, Likeness), or the transfer portal. This will have an effect on all programs at every level. Superstars want to get paid. If they don’t, they can and will find other avenues that allow them to monetize their brands.
There’s also the constant cry for rule changes, a college dual meet championship, and more television exposure.
This is likely just the beginning of a new era in wrestling. There’s no telling where this will end.
(Kyle Klingman, the former director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame Dan Gable Museum, is an editorial content provider for Flowrestling.)