Earlier this month, the Oregon School Activities Association unanimously voted in favor of making girls wrestling an official high school sport starting in the fall. The move is intended to boost equity for girls wrestling programs in Oregon by improving access to training facilities and coaching staff, and by separately scheduling competitions for girls and boys matches. Since the 2018-2019 wrestling season, the OSAA has awarded state championship titles for girls wrestling matches, which previously were held as exhibition tournaments.
According to a proposal submitted by school athletic officials to the OSAA in January, there are more than 1,100 athletes competing in girls wrestling programs in Oregon high schools, a 25 percent increase from the previous year. Nationwide, participation in the sport increased by 50 percent in just four years, according to a 2021-2022 survey conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations.
Joining us to talk about girls wrestling in Oregon are Sarahi Chavez, a sophomore and member of the girls wrestling team at McKay High School in Salem; Jessica Lister, the head coach of the girls wrestling team at Hood River Valley High School and a three-time All-American wrestler; and Trent Kroll, the athletic director of Hood River Valley High School who successfully petitioned the OSAA to change the status of girls wrestling.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Earlier this month, in a unanimous vote by the Oregon School Activities Association (OSAA), girls wrestling became the first new school sport in the state in nearly 45 years. Girls wrestling has been growing in popularity around the country and in Oregon. This change is intended to boost equity for girls wrestling programs in the state by improving access to training facilities and coaching staff and by giving administrators a way to separately schedule tournaments for girls and for boys.
Sarahi Chavez is a sophomore and a member of the girls wrestling team at Mckay High School in Salem. Jessica Lister was a four time state wrestling champion in Oregon in high school and a three time all American in college. She’s now the head coach of the girls wrestling team at Hood River Valley High School. Trent Kroll is the athletic director there. He is one of the people who successfully petitioned the OSAA to make this change. Welcome to all three of you.
[Voices overlap] Thank you for having me / Thanks, Dave.
Dave Miller: I thought we should probably start with you, Sarahi, since you are the only current girls wrestler among the four of us right now. How did you get into wrestling?
Sarahi Chavez: I first got into wrestling basically from my older brother and uncles. I first started at a small-mat club, up in Keizer.
Miller: How old were you?
Chavez: I was five years old...
Miller: Whoa! What was that like to be wrestling as a five year old?
Chavez: As a five year old, it was just something fun to be doing. Obviously I had so much energy as a child so I was just wanting to be everywhere and just wrestling with the boys. Knowing there was no girls around, it was just me, it was just fun to be with like scrambling with the boys everywhere.
Miller: If that was the way you started, did it just feel normal? I mean, you were the only girl there, but was it not a big deal at that time?
Chavez: At that time, obviously I was small. I wasn’t thinking anything of it. I was just…that’s where I wanted to see girls and so when I would go to other tournaments, I was just the only girl there wrestling with the boys. Once I started getting older, I started wondering , ‘Why is there no girls here?’ Like a question that I had, yeah.
Miller: Was there a point when you realized you were really good?
Chavez: Ever since I was little, I always look back at old videos thinking I wish I was that aggressive now because I was really aggressive when I was little. So I always look back at videos and just laugh because I was so aggressive with the little boys and everything.
Miller: You were more aggressive as a five or six or seven year old than you are as a high school wrestler?
Chavez: Yeah…especially with the boys…
Miller: What do you mean?
Chavez: I don’t know, there’s just something... I just like wrestling with boys. You really want to beat them. So it’s just... more aggression that comes out. I don’t know, it’s just so much more energy and more fun to be doing. Beating a boy and I don’t know, I just find it funny.
Miller: How did those boys feel about it?
Chavez: Pretty mad, actually. The parents as well. They would get really upset, a girl beating their son. So they would just get mad, yeah.
Miller: When you were say, like, in middle school?
Chavez: Middle school too, yeah. A lot of boys too, when I was in middle school…
Miller: How would you know that the parents were mad?
Chavez: Just the way they were. They would make little comments. Or I would hear them on the side of the mat, their parents, ‘Oh, you got this… it’s a girl...’
Miller: And then, they would literally say that right in front of you?
Chavez: Uh-huh, yeah, they would say that. Those kind of words.
Miller: What would go through your mind when you would hear that?
Chavez: That I just wanted to beat him and prove them wrong. Knowing that a girl can beat a boy in sport.
Miller: And then you would do it.
Chavez: Yeah. And they would be upset.
Miller: [Chuckling] Trent Kroll, can you explain how girls wrestling in Oregon has worked for the last four years or so. There’s been a sort of a complicated progression of changes. But up until this recent change, what was the situation like?
Trent Kroll: I think in 2017, we were really seeing a big growth. Over 500 females wrestling in the state. We were in discussion with OSAA: ‘How do we create an official State Championship Tournament for the girls.’ Because previous to that it was really an exhibition tournament. Actually, Jessica’s medals say ‘Exhibition’ on the back of them, the girls were like, ‘Why does my medal say ‘Exhibition’ on it?’
Previous to the OSAA having a plan for sports to become emerging sports for two years, and then being put in as an official sport... that was previous to this 2017/2018 decision. What we decided was that we were gonna propose to the OSAA that we create a separate division for girls within the already existing sport of wrestling. So that means, currently there’s a 1A, 2A division, a 3A, a 4A, a 5A, a 6A, and then we were proposing to add a 6th division, a girls division.
Miller: I think just for people who aren’t familiar with the way high school sports works, those are sizes. The higher the number, the larger the school. The proposal was to add, in addition to the sizes for different high school teams or schools’ teams from different sizes of high schools, one new division for girls.
Kroll: Correct. So all the divisions would fall within the girls division. I mean, all sizes of schools would fall into the girls division, correct. It was great. We had six podiums during the State Championships. We had six mats. Hood River Valley is a 5-A school. Our boys competed on the 5-A mat and then our girls competed on the girls mat in the State Championships and it was fantastic. Their medals were the same as the boys. We were in the same venue.
But then as teams started growing around the state and we had teams with 20 or 30 females on them, it was evident that we needed to kind of separate the programs. That’s when Hood River Valley decided to hire a full-time head coach that was equal to the boys coach for the girls team.
Miller: And Jessica Lister, that’s you. Before you became a coach, I’m curious, how you got into wrestling?
Jessica Lister: I started about seventh grade, mainly just because my brothers and cousins and everything all wrestled kind of just like how Sarahi said, just getting into the room. I absolutely enjoyed it. Fell in love with it. I wrestled on the boys team all throughout high school. I wrestled Regionals and State on the girls’ side of it, but the majority of it was just wrestling against the boys.
Miller: Obviously divided up by weight, to equalize things.
As Trent just mentioned, when you were a four time State High School Wrestling Champion in Oregon in the mid 2010s, that was when girls wrestling was technically an exhibition sport. So, it says ‘exhibition’ on the back of your medals. What did that mean to you when you were the best in the state for your weight class and you’d get this medal and it’s an ‘exhibition’ on the back? Which is not what it said on the boys’ medals. What did that mean to you?
Lister: At first, it was kind of hard to really realize what it meant. Trent really helped me figure that out because he was my high school coach. So it was hard to realize that we weren’t an official sport. But it’s great now to see it not say that. Being able to help these female athletes realize how far the sport has come just because of pioneer wrestlers that were even before me.
Miller: How has the girls wrestling team, just at Hood River Valley High School, grown in recent years?
Lister: When I was in high school, I think there were four girls total on the team. This last year, we’re kind of still rebuilding after COVID, but I think the biggest team Hood River has had is about 15. This incoming class that we have this year is about 15.
So hoping that we’re retaining the majority of them and have a good 20 team, like Kroll was saying…
Miller: So Sarahi, have you seen growth? Have you seen more girls wrestling over the course of your time as a wrestler?
Chavez: Definitely. Yeah, I’ve noticed that a lot of high schoolers, especially at my school, McKay High School, has grown so much. Knowing that we’re like the biggest girls team. I definitely think that a lot of teams out there have been growing ever since girls have been doing wrestling. I don’t know. It’s just a big part.
Miller: Do you tell your friends or classmates? Do you say, ‘Hey, you should wrestle too?’
Chavez: Yeah. Actually, I have a lot of younger girls from middle school - that I used to go to - that will be joining next year. There’s already bigger teams in middle school. A lot of girls are joining...so we’ll for sure be having a bigger team this year too.
Miller: What would you tell a girl that you think would be a good candidate for wrestling? What would you tell her, to try to get her to take part in the sport?
Chavez: Honestly, it’s just something different. Even if she wouldn’t think like, ‘Oh, that’s something a girl should do.’ But honestly, I would just tell her, ‘It’s fun to try.’ That’s what I tell all the girls that join, ‘Just try it.’ It’s something new that you’re going to like or if you don’t like it, that’s fine. But it’s just a really fun sport to do, and different than all the other sports out there.
Miller: When you’re in the middle of a match. It’s just you – I mean, you’re a member of a team, but this is one of those individual sports when you are all together, you make up a team. What’s going through your mind at the very beginning of a match?
Chavez: Obviously, making my team proud, myself proud, and family members proud. Once you get into that match, it feels like you forget everything. I feel like I forget that there’s even people around. It’s just me and my opponent, but I just tell myself [to] stay positive and do what I know I can do.
Miller: Trent Kroll, so what is actually going to change now for schools for athletic directors like you or coaches like Jessica or athletes like Sarahi? What’s going to change because of this unanimous decision by the OSAA?
Kroll: So back in 2017/2018, when we made this proposal to add an official State Championship, there were only six states that had an official State Championship. Now as we move it from an official State Championship to an official sport, there are 38 states with a State Championship for girls wrestling. So that’s pretty huge growth in the nation.
In the state of Oregon, change is hard, especially for people who have been coaching for 20-25 years, like me. So these little steps, I think have been good for us here in Oregon. The biggest change, it’s gonna look a lot like it has, but the biggest change is that now we’ve given permission to school districts to separate programs if they want. Which would then be a separate schedule. Which is going to only same-gender tournaments. A separate coach, maybe even a separate practice, and really treating the girls wrestling program as an equal to the boys wrestling program.
Miller: And you’re thinking that the schools that will take advantage of that newfound ability are more likely to be the larger ones, whether it’s Salem or Hood River or schools in Portland, say?
Kroll: Yeah, it’s hard to say. It’s pretty individual school driven. LaPine is a 3-A program and they’ve got a pretty big squad. So, it just depends on the community really. There’s a lot of schools - there’s 211 school districts that have wrestling in the state of Oregon. I think that 167 of those school districts had a female on their team this last year. Maybe 100 of them have less than five females on their team. Those programs are gonna look a lot like they did last year. Where the females have the same coach as the males and when they go to tournaments, they’re gonna go to the same tournaments as the boys team and hopefully those tournaments are gonna have female only brackets. If not they might have to go to a separate tournament. Then at the end of the year, they’ll still be able to compete at the girls regionals and the girls state tournament. It’s gonna look a lot the same. But for those bigger programs, it’s gonna grow really fast.
Washington did this a decade ago. There’s a lot of questions that don’t have answers to them already. The people from Washington said, ‘You know, it’s a two year process really, to answer all those questions.’ So there’s gonna be some growing pains. But I think now is the time to do it instead of waiting 10 years.
Miller: Jessica Lister, what do you think is behind the big increase in participation in girls wrestling in Oregon and around the country in recent years?
Lister: I think a lot of it is mainly they’re seeing that other girls can wrestle. In my time when I was in high school, there were only a handful of female athletes that wrestled and now they’re seeing that they can do it. A big part that I run into is, a lot of girls don’t want to practice with the boys or they don’t want to compete against the boys and they don’t have to now. When I was in high school, that was about the only option in Oregon – was to compete against the boys. But now it’s completely different and it’s giving the girls the opportunity that they don’t have to wrestle against the boys. And I think that due to a lot of the growth.
Miller: Sarahi, you came in second in States this year, right?
Miller: The season that just ended, what’s your thought process as you get ready for next year’s high school season?
Chavez: Just preparation and just practicing, drilling, resting your body. Just to be ready for the next or that same important match. Just coming up better and stronger. Yeah, a lot of mental and physical things, too, you need to do. That I’m for sure going to work on once I’m back.
Miller: Have you replayed that State Championship match in your mind?
Chavez: Yeah, I have. I be thinking about a lot all the time or I even watch the video back and I pick little things that I could work on. So I can be better and just know that I did my best. I’m happy with my results that I have but came hand shorted…
Miller: … but next year is a new year.
Chavez: Yeah, a new year.
Miller: Sarahi Chavez, Jessica Lister and Trent Kroll, thanks very much.
Kroll: Thanks for making this topic a priority. I appreciate it.
Miller: Sarahi Chavez is a sophomore and a member of the girls wrestling team at McKay High School in Salem. Jessica Lister was a champion high school wrestler in Oregon, three time College All American, [and] now the girls’ high school wrestling head coach at Hood River Valley High School, where Trent Kroll is the athletic director. He’s also the vice president of the Oregon Athletic Directors’ Association.
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