Iowa women compete while playing the waiting game for varsity status

Updated: January 13, 2023

Photo: Wrestling unattached this season, the Iowa women cannot have any Hawkeye coaches in their corner. This included at the Soldier Salute where Kylie Welker (second from right) offered words for teammate Bella Mir under the watchful eye of Felicity Taylor (right) and Sterling Dias (left). Photo by Brian Ray, photo.

By Mike Finn

Felicity Taylor has not been wearing the word “Iowa” on her varsity singlet yet. But on Dec. 29-30, she finally felt like a Hawkeye.

For those two days over the holiday break, Taylor and 12 other women, who are making up next year’s Hawkeye team, competed unattached at the Soldier Salute in nearby Coralville, Iowa. And three of them — Taylor (116 pounds), Sterling Dias (101) and Reese Larramendy (143) — won championships in Xtream Arena.  Three other future Hawkeyes finished second, including Junior World champ and 2021 Senior World Team member Kylie Welker, who was forced to injury default at 170 pounds. 

“I was reflecting before my final match (a technical fall over Army WCAP’s Aleeah Gould), that it’s crazy to have this opportunity,” said Taylor, who grew up two hours north of Iowa City in Spillville, Iowa, and had already wrestled three years at McKendree University before deciding to spend one more year wrestling in college for the Hawkeyes. “Just the experiences that I get to have here is amazing. It’s incredible that women athletes didn’t have this opportunity before. It’s cool to reflect on how far the state of Iowa has come.”

Like many other young women wrestlers, Taylor competed against boys in high school and still compiled 100 career prep wins before competing at McKendree where she won a national title in 2021 and finished second last winter. She also has ranked as high as No. 2 on the USA national team and competed for the U.S. in last December’s World Cup that was also held in Xtream Arena.

When Iowa announced in September of 2021 it would become the first Division I school from a Power 5 Conference to start a women’s varsity program, starting officially in 2023-24, it meant wrestlers like Taylor, age 22, opted to compete this winter unattached before new coach Clarissa Chun can sit in their corner on the mat.

“I’m excited because, one, she’s from the state of Iowa and now she has an opportunity to earn a graduate degree,” said Chun, the 2008 Olympic bronze medalist, who accepted the challenge to build the first-ever Hawkeye women’s team. “She’s a great leader in the room and she takes care of our team by bringing in baked cookies even though I jokingly say not to because these women have to make weight.”

Women’s wrestling was given “emerging-sport status” by the NCAA two years ago and there will be two national tournaments for NCAA and NAIA  programs this March. The Ken Kraft Midlands also offered a women’s college tournament for the first time in the 58-year history of the event, also held Dec. 29-30.

Chun hopes other Power 5 programs will follow Iowa’s lead before the Hawkeyes become official this fall.

“I want as many as we can have,” said Chun at the conclusion of the Soldier Salute. “The Columbia athletic director was here with Iowa’s AD, which was awesome. I think there is interest and thought in getting these opportunities out there for other Power 5 programs as well as the Ivy League. That is awesome.”

Several of these Iowa women will also focus on making the Senior women’s freestyle team later this spring and summer.

“There are a few that will go to the Klippon tournament in Sweden and other international events,” Chun said.

And for now, these women are understanding the historic moments that they are creating for Iowa and around the country.

“You think about it a little bit, but you don’t realize what’s happening until you look back at it,” Taylor said. “It’s cool to see how far women’s wrestling has come, including in the state of Iowa where girls high school wrestling is officially sanctioned. 

“One of those past (state of Iowa girls) wrestlers that I looked up to (Megan Black) handed me my (Soldier Salute) award and she was a teammate of mine at McKendree. It’s crazy how it all connects.”

Black, who became the first girl to win a match at an Iowa boys state tournament while wrestling for Eddyville in 2012, is now an Army recruiter in Iowa. She’s an assistant coach for the women’s team at William Penn University and got to be involved in the awards ceremonies at Xtream Arena.

“Every year, women’s wrestling is writing history,” said Black. “We are going to have our first sanctioned girls state tournament this winter. Maybe I had a little piece of that and now you see girls wrestling everywhere.”