Female wrestlers can compete on their own terms starting this fall, without having to join clubs or boys organizations.
The Arizona Interscholastic Association’s Executive Board recently voted to include girls wrestling as an emerging sport beginning with the 2018-19 school year. Girls wrestling would take place during the winter and conclude with a bracketed individual championship tournament in conjunction with boys wrestling at its state finals.
With this inclusion, Arizona joins an elite group of less than 10 state associations to offer girls wrestling as a championship event. The number of individual participants per weight class will depend on the qualifiers from the regular season tournaments.
Maggie Whalen is thrilled her work is paying off. She wrestled as a sophomore last year and will this season for Tolleson Union High School.
“I was super excited because we really pressed for it to be a varsity sport this year,” Whalen said. “I know everyone at Tolleson is super excited.”
She explained there were several complications because it was a club sport.
“There were only three girls events I could go to, and one was in Tucson, so there was only really two,” Whalen said.
The boys-only mandate, she said, was simply not fair.
“Most of us were saying that you wouldn’t let the girls basketball team practice with the boys basketball team, so it’s kind of the same with us,” Whalen said.
Athletic directors on this side of the Valley have been communicating about it, and they said they believe AIA’s decision is a major step forward for female athletes.
“In the past, girls would have to settle,” said Ray Perkins, Tolleson Union High School’s athletic director. “Nationally, some boys refused to wrestle girls because of fear of being embarrassed, or it was awkward.”
Perkins said it will be a popular sport at Tolleson, as at least 15 girls are expected to come out. At Tolleson Union High, there is a pedigree and resume of excellence in the girls wrestling program.
“We definitely have a history here for girls…We’ve had girls in the past here who have won state championships here in girls wrestling,” Perkins said. “At our school we have a great interest of girls that want to be involved.”
Westview High School Athletic Director Tonya Lee said, in her experience, coed wrestling wasn’t a problem.
“My females would always wrestle my boys,” she said. “There would be no problem with it.”
Sadie Goforth, an incoming Westview High School junior, is looking forward to the program.
“Usually I would wrestle a boy,” Goforth said. “I wrestled a girl about three times in my two years of wrestling. It was a lot harder to wrestle a boy. It was a lot more competitive.”
That strength has paid off, as now their competition is exclusive. Even if the girls didn’t even have their minds on it, they clearly ended up receiving an exciting surprise.
“I don’t really think I was really excited for it because I wasn’t really expecting it to happen, but now that it is I’m looking forward to it,” Goforth said.
Many athletic directors weren’t expecting it either.
“Generally speaking, when most changes like these come about, they happen over a period of time,” said Derek Fahleson, who has been athletic director at La Joya Community High School for three years. “This one caught a number of athletic directors off guard. Not that it was under the radar, but it all just happened very quickly.”
During his tenure, there has been at least one girl on the team. He has a theory about the AIA’s decision.
“I think the wave of the female MMA has sparked the interest in the young ladies to do female wrestling,” Fahleson said.
Bill Wright, the athletic director of Estrella Foothills High School, agreed with Fahleson.
“Like everything else associated with athletics, there are new trends that certain kids are interested in,” Wright said. “There are some states that have had girls wrestling as a sport, and now it’s reaching that popularity and recognition in Arizona.”
Wright is also the 4A Southwest Region chairman, which requires him to communicate with the seven other regions about AIA information.
He also said he believes girls will be more inclined to participate as their program will now have its own state championship tournament. They are no longer going after a title they must share with the boys.
“There will be more girls to participate if there is attractiveness to win a separate state title,” Wright said.