Salena Weiss has grown used to big wrestling tournaments. As a manager for Haverford High, the senior had accompanied the Fords to plenty of significant tournaments.
That experience spurred Weiss, after her junior year, to try the sport, as a competitor rather than as support staff. When she walked into Gettysburg High School on March 8 for the MyHouse PA Girls State Championship and found female wrestlers not shunted to side mats or dotting an overwhelmingly male population, it was a revelation. Instead, the nearly 400 girls participating in the event were center stage, in the parade of champions, on the livestream broadcast, on the podium.
"It was different because all of the girls are supportive of each other, just like the guys are supportive of each other," Weiss said this week. "We cheer each other on, even if we lost, and we're trying to make this bigger, so we're trying to encourage each other to win. There, it doesn't matter if you win or lose, because you're trying to make the group bigger and expand it to more girls so that they can do it.
"It's nice being surrounded by so many girls that also love the sport that you do, and I just got started in it so it's nice to see that it's not just boys that can do it but girls can do it, too."
With Weiss' high school career ending with the fourth-place medal at 108 pounds, she won't be able to live the results of a fervent push to get the PIAA to sponsor girls wrestling. A new campaign, SanctionPA, is underway by the Pennsylvania Girls High School Wrestling Task Force, to provide educational resources and support for school districts hoping to launch girls wrestling programs. While girls wrestling participation is growing quickly nationwide, a state where the sport is so hallowed lags well behind in its acceptance.
The numbers, as highlighted by a Wall Street Journal article in January, support the growth: Fewer boys are wrestling in high school, but girls are flocking to the sport. Per the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) annual participation studies, the number of male high school wrestlers in the U.S. in 2018-19 was down 9.6 percent from 2010-11, though that figure rallied slightly since bottoming out in 2016-17. Girls participation climbed steadily in that time, more than tripling from 6,000 wrestlers in 2019-10 to more than 21,000 a decade later. The absolute numbers indicate that girls wrestling remains a fraction of boys' participation (21,000 vs. 247,000, or about 8.5 percent). But the trends are important.
The U.S. has long faltered in offering wrestling opportunities for girls and women. When the Olympics adopted women's wrestling in 2004 (at a drastically minimized slate of weight classes compared to the men's event that had been a part of every Olympics but one since 1896) only two states had sanctioned tournaments for girls.
Progress is accelerating. Twenty-two states either sponsor or are developing girls wrestling, up from the 15 that the NFHS reported just a year ago. Connecticut, Arkansas, Kansas, Maryland and New Mexico held or were due to hold their first championships in 2020, with Montana and Utah to follow in 2021 while Nebraska explores a pilot program.
Pennsylvania is well behind the curve. Its state championships have been organized since 2012 by the state's chapter of USA Wrestling (PAUSAW), not the PIAA. Only this week was the first girls program brought into existence, approved by the Lancaster School District's board for J.P. McCaskey High.
Pennsylvania faces what Chris Atkinson - a PAUSAW Board member, its women's wrestling director and an assistant coach at Souderton - calls a chicken-and-the-egg scenario. The PIAA's Policies and Procedures say its board "shall consider establishing ... an Inter-District Championship in a sport upon the number of member senior high schools sponsoring that sport reaching 100." Crucially, the PIAA doesn't specify how many team members are required for school sponsorship, and all 12 PIAA districts in the state have female wrestlers bundled into boys teams.
Many other states, Atkinson said, have opened the door by starting tournaments and then seen the numbers blossom. Currently, change has to be initiated at the grassroots level, one-by-one via school boards, requiring a wide dissemination of the message.
"In states that you've seen collectively, as soon as they sanctioned girls wrestling, it's like they flipped a switch," Atkinson said.
What's been clear, in other sports since the passage of Title IX in the early 1970s, is that messaging matters. And for many wrestlers, having ownership of a team as "girls wrestling" instead of being subtly labeled interlopers - as girls who are wrestling on a "boys" team - is important.
One of the growing cells is Parkland, a massive district whose high school team includes about a dozen girls. That was a factor for freshman Snow Liu, who did mixed martial arts in middle school and was looking for a combat sport at the high school level. When Parkland put out a call to add girls to the team, she and several friends joined, something she would've been more reticent to do as the only girl in the room.
"I think it's such an amazing feeling because you have so many other girls there to support you all the time," Liu said. "They're always cheering you on, always telling you how to improve, always willing to drill with you and train with you. It makes me as a girl feel really empowered, makes me feel like I can do it. ...
"I don't think I would've viewed it the same way if I was the only girl. It definitely would've made me feel like I was different than everyone else, but having the other girls around makes it feel different."
Liu's path is common, with martial arts as an entry point. Hannah Spielman, a sophomore at Strath Haven, went from karate to jujitsu to wrestling. Athletics are a big part of her schooling: she throws javelin and discus, runs cross country and is getting into power-lifting. She wasn't daunted as the only girl on the team, embracing the challenge against stronger wrestlers.
But after the girls state championships - where Spielman beat Dymanique Jones of Chichester for the gold medal at 147 pounds - she appreciates the difference of having a dedicated girls team.
"Last year, I didn't really care," Spielman said. "But then this year I met some girls from Parkland, and just seeing the bond they have and the fun they have, it kind of made me sad that I don't have that with my teammates. Most of them are nice to me, but there's still that bond that we don't have that all the other guys have with each other. And it is a little lonely sometimes."
Weiss and Spielman both said they've been warmly received by teammates. Weiss called the Fords "really supportive," offering encouragement and invitations to offseason training. Both went out of their way to dispel any horror stories that often gain news coverage, of boys refusing to wrestle on the basis of gender.
Atkinson has seen the growth among coaches, too. Strath Haven's coach, Tony Gilliano, was at states to mentor Spielman. Atkinson, whose daughter Makenna wrestles in elementary school, has seen the stereotypical machismo many might associate with coaches thaw.
"I'm sure that there's some, but a lot of those coaches may not have been exposed to girls wrestling," he said. "But if they would, and if they go into it with open eyes and open minds, they'd be pleasantly surprised with the level that they're at and how devoted they are to the sport. I tell coaches that this is not just a fad. More and more girls are coming and it's going to continue to grow."
The growth seems all but assured. SanctionPA's aim is to accelerate the timeline to get a PIAA girls tournament within the next five years.
Weiss saw firsthand how powerful representation is. At states, her coach's niece was so taken by Weiss' performance that she told Weiss she was going to take up wrestling.
"Knowing that a little kid is looking up to you and wants to do a sport that you're doing because you inspired them because you were fourth in the state or just because you were on the boys team, it's a show of strength," Weiss said. "And she wants to do the same thing. ... I think girls seeing that there's more than just certain girls at different tournaments surrounded by a bunch of boys and they can see that there's a whole family out there that does girls wrestling, that can inspire them."
It's not hard to figure where Liu and Spielman fall on the chicken-and-the-egg spectrum. Both approach it with a certain defiance. They've heard people ask why they're in a perceived boys sport, but they're living proof that it isn't just a boys sport.
Getting others to label it that way will help attract others to that mindset.
"I get told that, 'oh you're a girl, why are you doing such a tough sport?,'" Liu said. "Some people question my mom, like, why do you put her through that. She says, 'well she chose to do it herself because she is a tough cookie.' I think that might be your opinion, but it's a new generation, and we're showing that girls can do anything they choose to do if they can set their mind to it."
"For sure, there's so many people that ask me, oh is it weird being the only girl on the team, or is it weird wrestling boys?," Spielman said. "There would definitely be a lot more girls doing it if they didn't have to be on a boys team and put them in uncomfortable situations sometimes."