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Women’s Wrestling’s Reluctant Pioneers
By Mike Finn
Elena Pirozhkova remembers when she first showed up at the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and met some of the first women to earn World medals for the United States.
“I remember saying, ‘Who are these girls?’ when I saw Patricia Miranda and Sara McMann,” said Pirozhkova, a native of Russia who was raised in Greenfield, Mass. “I was so oblivious in my own little world when I was in high school.
“I knew who John Smith and Cael Sanderson were. USA Wrestling did not advertise wrestling as much. I never knew that wrestling existed on that level. Once I got introduced to that level, it was really eye-opening and made me aspire to be like those women.”
And that’s why U.S. national coach Terry Steiner felt it was important to bring 17 of the first competitors — dating back to the first FILA World Championships for women’s freestyle in 1989 — back for recognition for those in Las Vegas Convention Center on the second night of the ASICS U.S. Open in April during a reunion.
“I only really knew about a handful of the women,” admitted Steiner, who became national coach in 2003. I had seen some of them around. Some I had never met. Some I just knew who they were. You need the younger women pushing and older women pulling the younger ones in. You don’t appreciate what you have until you know the past.”
The most notable of the women introduced as “Pioneers of Women’s Wrestling” was Patricia Saunders, the first woman to win a World championship (in 1992, before adding three more in 1996, ‘98 and ‘99.)
But she said she and the other women are reluctant to be called pioneers for what they did a quarter of a century ago.
“We just wanted to be called athletes and wrestlers,” said Saunders, who first wrestled as a club teammate of Zeke Jones in Michigan until age 13 when she was forced to give up the sport by high school officials until 10 years later when Jones first told her about the Worlds in 1989.
And Saunders and many of the first women’s wrestlers were referred to something more than pioneers at a time when the anthem of the U.S. National Governing Body (NGB) was “we will not encourage the development of women’s wrestling in any way,” recalled Saunders.
“I think most of us heard, ‘Why are you here? What is your social purpose?’ ” she added.
“I think we are proud of the work that we did. If we could redo history and not deal with any of that other stuff, all of us would. I think it made us stronger and stick together. We were a team like any other team.
“What made me happy was that a lot of the women (in Las Vegas) never got a chance to see USA Wrestling evolve. All they know is that they funded all those World Teams, working for five bucks an hour some place to pay for a $500 plane ticket just to do a single exhibition.
“They were young women from age 18-23. Back in those days, long-distance calls were really expensive. It was just love of the sport and making sure everyone had a chance to do it. We felt that we were doing the same sport, without variation.”
Saunders is married to former World Team men’s freestyle wrestler Townsend Saunders. They have three children. She said the early U.S. women grapplers did not feel like pioneers in the sport because many other women around the world were already wrestling.
“The United States was behind (the rest of the world when it came to women’s wrestling),” she recalled. “We didn’t spearhead it. We were catching up and trying to get in the game that everyone else had started.
“I was competing against those who had been competing their whole lives, especially in Japan where women had been practicing martial arts. We didn’t have the footing to know that we were not pioneers in the world. We were trying to bring the United States up to speed. We were trying to get on the train that was already moving.
“I’m glad to see the United States do so much better, including at college institutions and grass-roots level.”
To add even more perspective to this women’s wrestling story, many of them could be mothers to those currently competing, including the likes of 158-pound U.S. Open champion Brittany Roberts, who was born one year after the first World Championships.
“I didn’t realize how many pioneers there were and how long ago they competed, how long their legacy is,” said Roberts, who is currently coached at Oklahoma City University by Kristie Davis, a two-time World champion and nine-time medalist, who was not at the reunion.
“This sport has grown so much. It’s booming.”
However you want to label them, these early U.S. women wrestlers appreciate how far the sport has come in this country. n