By Angela Jackson
The battle of the sexes has been going on for centuries. But the young women at Wrestle Like A Girl are building their defenses to win.
“I have learned that I can be something bigger, something better. As an athlete and as a (young) woman, it gives me confidence. It gives me strength,” said Raquel Gray, a WLAG wrestler.
What else is a girl to gain from participating in a historically male sport? The answer: a lot.
“Combat sports are great for girls, as it helps with confidence and requires you to become very self aware. Wrestling offers knowledge of self-defense, fitness, nutrition and body appearance,” said Katherine Shai who is a board member of WLAG and founder of her own educational blog LuchaFIT.
WLAG was originally founded by Sally Roberts, a two-time World Bronze Medalist in women’s wrestling and a three-time national champion.
Her goal is to bring the mission of WLAG all around the country. She takes her team of elite coaches to different schools to advocate, empower and support young female athletes.
“We teach them the importance of nutrition, hydration and sport psychology including how to build their confidence, how to dig within themselves so that they can become whoever, whatever they want to be both on the mat and off the mat,” Roberts said.
It was a natural fit for Shai to become part of WLAG because she is a lifelong athlete herself. And you might say it‘s in her blood. Literally. Her father competed in the 1956 and 1960 Olympic games in wrestling. He began coaching women’s club wrestling in the 1980’s and went on to start the only four-year college women’s wrestling program in California.
The sport had such an impact on her life there was no other choice but to share it with others. Her love and experience for the sport led her to become part of an organization that specifically advocates and speaks to girls.
The young women featured in our photos are members of the Chatfield Junior Wrestling Team in Littleton. Their coach, Sandra George, also knows firsthand the difference this sport can make on a person’s life.
“I played team sports when I was younger until I learned I could wrestle, my life literally changed. Wrestling is a sport where you learn self-motivation, how to strive to do better, how to learn to lose on your own. With a team sport you have others to help you win or lose,” George said.
The eleven girls on her team may be typical in that they are interested in everything from hashtags to the latest headphones, but they are also “tough.”
George says her girls are dedicated to the sport and as opportunities grow each year, stereotypes are being broken when they get the right support.
“Girls are breaking the barrier to sports and accomplishing great things,” she said. Six of her wrestlers also practice Jiu Jitsu with a Black Belt judo professor in Lakewood, CO.
Train. Fight. Win. is the name of the gym these young wrestlers were at the day we caught up with them. Gym owner, L.A. Jennings, Ph.D.‘s goal is to create a place where female athletes can feel comfortable.
She says over the years she has encountered some coaches and gyms out there that weren’t necessarily vested in the success of female athletes. That was not the type of space she wanted to create with her gym.
“One of the things that has been really important to me as a gym owner, and that I know was important to WLAG too, is to change the dialogue around women in sports and to not use the idea of ‘wrestling like a girl’ as a pejorative, but rather to see that as a strength,” Jennings said. “What I’ve tried to do as a coachis provide a place where women are valued as athletes and not seen as anomalies and that they are in an environment that is welcoming to them.”
Jennings also authored the book She’s a Knockout! A History of Women in Fighting Sports. She shares that women’s participation in sports was a very natural part of cultural play thousands of years ago. It wasn’t until the 19th century that rules were put in place that omitted women.
“It’s not like women are suddenly doing something new. We are in a certain extent in mass, but rather that we’re combatting those institutional forces that have sought to exclude women from doing something that is very human,” Jennings said.
She offers her vision of the future of female fighters.
“I think we will see much more growth as we see acceptance of and interest in girls being able to participate in sports like wrestling and boxing and kickboxing at a younger age,” Jennings said. That is a sentiment shared by the other female coaches.
“Providing more opportunities for girls to be exposed to combat sports will help their parents and the public realize this is not a sport exclusively for boys,” Shai said.
“With all the female athletes in MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) more and more girls are learning wrestling is a foundation to all other sports. Girls are breaking the barrier to sports and accomplishing great things,” said George.
The young women of WLAG, like many Women Of Denver members, are rewriting their story and getting the tools to slay with the best.
“Wrestling is a stepping stone to help you with confidence and bravery and just to step out of your own element of comfort,” George said. “A girls comfort line gets pushed further as she realizes how hard she can work, what she can endure and what she can accomplish because of that.”
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