Women wrestlers display a unity that entire sport could use

Updated: August 7, 2023

Photo: These wrestlers were among the record number of 1,593 women who first competed in either the Junior or 16U women’s freestyle tournament, then celebrated in song and dance from the stands before and during the finals on July 16 in Fargo, N.D. (Tony Rotundo photo)

By Mike Finn

Rob Cate did an excellent job during the recent Junior/16U Nationals in Fargo, N.D., serving as a “Disk Jockey,” a term that was once popular in my generation when radio hosts served up songs for their listeners.

That was the case for a week at this summer’s event, especially during the three different championship sessions, when he played recorded songs that were familiar to those who packed the north stands while watching action on side-by-side mats.

But one song that he did not play, but was so appropriate during the Junior/16U finals in women’s freestyle, was Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”.

Because that’s exactly what hundreds of young women were doing before and during the finals. In fact, one could say this group of teenage women — most eliminated from the finals — were as entertaining as the women still competing for championships.

Cate was literally taking requests from this group of women from different states who were singing and dancing in unison to the songs for at least 30 minutes before the finals and many times after that on that Sunday night.

This was my 20th year of attending the event and I had never seen so much enthusiasm from a group of wrestlers, who may not have earned All-American status but certainly showcased their sisterhood.

Wrestlers, especially males, tend to get called introverted. That was not what I’d called the women wrestlers as a group in Fargo. Yes, the young men who watched the Junior and 16U finals in freestyle and Greco-Roman provided plenty of noise while they sat in the stands. But it did not match the pure enjoyment the women showed as their two days of competition wrapped up.

As a father of two women now in their 30s, who played softball, I got a chance to see that enthusiasm from dugouts where teams commonly offer up cheerful chants about nearly everything about the game. Not sure I’ve seen that in high school baseball.

I also believe this togetherness among women wrestlers, coaches and leaders in this sport is why women’s and girl’s wrestling has exploded over the country. Jason Bryant, who compiled a reference book about the history of Fargo, pointed out that there were nearly as many girls at one 16U weight in 2023 (80 at 120 pounds) as the total number (81) of young women who entered the entire 2011 Nationals in that age group.

“When you look at books about women in sport, what has been noted and studied is that women participate in sports as a social activity,” said Charlotte Bailey, who runs “Female Elite Wrestling” (FEW) in Iowa. Bailey played a big part in helping her state sanction the sport and also had a daughter competing in Fargo.

“A lot of the connection and sisterhood and their ability to set aside their personal wins and losses for their team and family, through wrestling, is what draws them and keeps them in the sport.”

Of course, women from 20 years ago or less, were forced to almost compete alone on boys teams; something Bailey believes is another reason that today’s women love the team aspect of the sport.

“We (at FEW) started offering opportunities to compete in duals; so too have other organizations,” Bailey added. “When girls were the only girls in their school and got a chance to compete in duals, they felt part of the team.”

But I also believe today’s young women wrestlers are just as competitive on the mat as their male counterparts.

“In a combat sport, it’s OK to say that women can be aggressive, but still be connected with the community,” Bailey said. “Women don’t have to choose between the two actions.”

Of course, it’s hard to know if this sisterhood will continue in the future. If not, I hope those wrestling women of the future look back and see what happened in Fargo in 2023.

 (Mike Finn, who has served as editor of WIN since 2003 and has covered wrestling for 35 years, can be reached at MikeF@WIN-Magazine.com.)