By Mike Finn
The story about Melinda Radford, the featured character in the novel “Perfected by Girls” is not unlike many of the stories that young women wrestlers live.
According to the National Federation of High School Associations, girls wrestling is growing — over 5,000 compete on the high school level, five times more than ten years ago — so it is not so unusual to hear about how young women must struggle to compete in a male-dominated sport with little acceptance from others.
What makes this story about a high school sophomore in Michigan unique is that it was written by a man, Alfred C. Martino, who has also wrote another book about high school boys wrestlers — “Pinned” — and spent about two years researching the feminine theme before publishing this soft-covered last month.
“The wrestling part is very easy for me to write about,” said the 47-year-old Martino, who once captained his New Jersey high school team before wrestling for a couple years at Duke in the 1980s and still coaches on the middle school level. “After I finished “Pinned”, I had the idea of writing about a high school girl on the wrestling team. I had some preconceived notions what girls, who are wrestlers, would be like and what they would think.”
To help Martino deal with gender differences, he interviewed about a dozen girls with high school wrestling backgrounds.
“What I learned was that they were just like boys wrestlers,” Martino said. “Their approach to the sport was very, very similar. That was surprising to me and also very encouraging.
“I thought it was interesting but did not leave me with a whole lot of conflict with the story. What I found in speaking to the girls is that they have to jump through a whole lot more hoops than a boy would to be able to compete in wrestling, especially in dealing with gender issues.”
Because the main characters are of high school age, Martino also introduces the problems that all teenagers deal with — boyfriends, girlfriends, academics and other personal and social issues — while trying to compete on a traditionally-strong program.
In “Perfected by Girls” the main character, “Mel”, whose older brother Cole is that star wrestler on the varsity team, is simply trying to compete on the JV team while also trying to have a normal life of a teenage girl.
“I didn’t want her to be the typical poor kid who wants to make good,” Martino said. “I thought it might be more interesting to have a girl who was a bit “girlie” and comes from a well-off family and contrast that to what she has to go through on the mat, sweating and getting beat up by boys … and beating up boys.”
But Mel also deals with the frustration of her time, including the comments she gets from her peers and old-fashioned coaches who want no part of her or any girl wrestling.
Without giving the story ending away, one of her frustrating moments leaves even family and friends questioning her purpose to wrestle, especially after real-life drama affects the entire team and high school.
Just like those who question how a girl can wrestle, there may be those who wonder how a middle-age man can write a first-person account of a high school girl athlete.
“I was in a writing group and the other person was a 23-year-old woman who was very adept at telling me when I was thinking like a guy and when I was thinking like a girl,” said Martino.
So what is the difference?
“(Girls) love the sport just like any boy would love the sport, but what kind of stuff do you have to deal with and how do you react to that?” Martino said. “That was what enabled me to write the differences between girls and guys.
“I think girls may be more interested in fashion and other things and interested in boys, but different than boys would be interested in girls. I think they approach things in different ways.”
In the book, Mel helps deal with her frustration when she attends a seminar held by a member of the U.S. national team.
“What I had hoped to get across in the part when Mel goes to an all-girls seminar is that the girls are very supportive of each other. When they competed against another girl, they wanted to beat each other but off the mat it was much more congenial.
“They all understand they have to compete in a group where they have to deal with unique problems that only girls can possibly understand. As a wrestler, it is extraordinary to me that you would have to get dressed in another room far away from your teammates.”
Since the book has only been out for less than two months, Martino has not had enough feedback from those dozen girls who added input.
But the response from high school librarians has been very good.
“I want to expose this story to students who might want to share it with family and friends.”
I encourage all wrestling families and coaches to buy the book, you’ll be glad you did.