Earlier this month, the Oregon School Activities Association unanimously approved making girls wrestling an officially sanctioned sport.
Starting in the 2023-2024 academic year, girls wrestling will become a separate sport in which female high school wrestlers compete throughout the state.
The last time the OSAA added a new school sport was nearly 45 years ago, with the addition of softball in 1979.
Trent Kroll is the athletic director at Hood River Valley High School and has 25 years of experience coaching both girls and boys wrestling. In January, he petitioned the OSAA to change the status of girls wrestling. He hopes the move will lead to not only more resources for girls wrestling, but also greater gender equity for schools that choose to pursue developing it.
“We’ve given permission to school districts to separate programs if they want, which would then be a separate schedule … a separate coach, maybe even a separate practice, and really treating the girls wrestling program as an equal to the boys wrestling,” Kroll said.
According to Kroll, more than 1,100 athletes competed on girls wrestling teams in Oregon during the season which ended in February — an increase of roughly 25 percent compared to the previous season. The sport, which has been listed in Oregon as a division of high school wrestling, is growing in popularity throughout the nation, according to a 2021-2022 survey conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations which found a 50 percent increase in participation in just four years.
Sarahi Chavez is a sophomore and member of the girls wrestling team at McKay High School.
She was first introduced to wrestling at the age of 5 while watching her older brothers and uncle compete at a club in Keizer. Chavez often had to wrestle boys during middle school because of the lack of female opponents. The occasional hostility she experienced from boys during matches, as well as their parents, motivated her to not only win, but to also make a statement that resonated beyond the wrestling mat.
“I just wanted to beat him and prove them wrong, knowing that a girl can beat … a boy in a sport,” she said.
Chavez finished the season with a record of 27 wins and three losses. In February, she narrowly lost — by one point — earning her first state title championship for the 100-pound weight class in which she competed.
At Hood River Valley High School, Jessica Lister is the head coach of the girls wrestling team. Lister ended her high school wrestling career in 2015 as a four-time state wrestling champion in Oregon and three-time All-American wrestler in college.
Back then, however, girls wrestling was recognized by the OSAA as an exhibition sport, and the medals that were handed out to Lister and other female state champions had the word “exhibition” written on the back of them.
Lister applauds the decision by the OSAA to elevate the status of girls wrestling which she has seen grow in popularity at Hood River Valley High since her time as an athlete at the school less than a decade ago.
“When I was in high school, I think there were four girls total on the team,” Lister said. “(The) incoming class that we have this year is about 15.”
As the sport appeals to more and more girls, a greater pool of opponents emerges who are matched not only in size but also gender. And that, according to Lister, makes the sport more appealing, especially for some athletes who may be apprehensive about stepping onto the mat for the first time.
“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,” Lister said. “Now, when I was in high school, that was about the only option in Oregon, was to compete against the boys. "
There are now 38 states, including Oregon, which hold separate girls and boys state wrestling championships in the U.S.
Kroll thinks it will take time for Oregon to catch up with states where the sport is more established, including Washington, which was among the first in the nation to sanction girls wrestling more than 15 years ago.
“There’s a lot of questions that don’t have answers to them already,” Kroll said. “So there’s going to be some growing pains. But I think now is the time to do it instead of waiting 10 years.”
In the meantime, high school wrestlers like Chavez are busy training, running drills and encouraging more of their classmates to try out for a sport that focuses competition and rewards achievement in a way that’s different from scoring a game-winning goal or basket.
“It’s just a really fun thing … and different than all the other sports out there when you’re in the middle of a match,” Chavez said. “I forget that there’s even people around. It’s just me and my opponent, but I just tell myself, stay positive and do what I know I can do.”
Sarahi Chavez, Jessica Lister and Trent Kroll spoke to “Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller. Click play to listen to the full conversation: