In the late 1990s and early 2000s it was almost unheard of to see a wrestling team with multiple girls on it anywhere in the United States. Hawaii was the first to sanction the sport in 1998. Texas followed suit in 1999 and Washington in 2007. After that trio was California, Alaska and Tennessee—the original six.
In 2019, national participation numbers surged with visibility as sanctioning efforts were spearheaded by state leaders and grassroots organizations. College opportunities mirrored this pace with back-to-back additions of NAIA, NCAA and JUCO programs.
With the spotlight on Wisconsin, the story highlights the efforts of outliers to bring together girls from across the state for their own opportunities and, most importantly, against equal competition.
One of the leading grassroots organizations for growing girls wrestling, for the entire country, came from Michigan. Kent Bailo launched the United States Girls Wrestling Association (USGWA) in 1998. He told Shannyn Gillespie in a 2019 article, “I went into business to go out of business.” As a referee he had seen individual girls wrestling against boys in events that felt like they were the “Lone Ranger”. He wanted to bring them together and show them that wasn’t true.
The USGWA instrumentally provided all-girls competition and showcased what could happen for growth if girls wrestled at all-girls events. The USGWA National tournament was a major draw. Because of the USGWA’s proximity and notoriety, Wisconsin girls attended.
Also in 1998, an all-girls K-12 program was started at Kenosha Bradford. The program was halted by Covid-19, but is still in place and led by Head Coach Jerril Grover and Elisabeth DeFoe. The Kenosha Bradford Girls are shown in the featured photo of this article courtesy of Coach Grover.
In 2002, several individuals made their way to Fargo to compete at Junior Nationals. It was the first year USA Wrestling added a division for the girls, and Jamie Chappa, a wrestler from Wisconsin Rapids, captured Wisconsin’s first All-American honors by placing 4th at 101 pounds.
It was in 2004, the same year the International Olympic Committee introduced women’s freestyle wrestling to the Olympic Games, that Team Wisconsin organized the first National Team camp for the girls out of River Falls. The team placed three more Junior National All-Americans: Alyssa Lampe and Sarah Peasley were runners up, and Lacey Novinska was sixth.
In February 2006 Tomahawk’s Alyssa Lampe became one of only two outliers in state history to make the finals at the WIAA Boys Individual State Tournament. Macey Kilty pulled through to the tournament finals a decade later.
The Wisconsin Wrestling Federation, led by Dave Black at the time, took note of the continued growth of the USGWA and USA Wrestling’s girls divisions. The organization made the call to pull girls into their own division at the WWF Kids Folkstyle State Championships in 2010. While some girls competed in the boy’s division prior to the separation, it wasn’t until the switch that growth was exponential.
There has been an unofficial girls folkstyle state championship for more than a decade at the high school level. Trackwrestling brackets provide history dating back to 2014, but there was a championship for girls prior to 2010. Many of the girls who wrestled in those unofficial championships have, or currently are, wrestling in college.
It has been a give and take of presenting results as leaders could see that numbers followed opportunity. The one-off girls wrestling on boy’s teams were pioneers, but their commitment to the sport was not enough of a draw for the WIAA to consider steps toward sanctioning the sport without the numbers. It was necessary to showcase how girls responded in their own environment and against equal competition. And, how the numbers multiplied in that equal environment.
In 2016 Ronald Reagan High School in Milwaukee and Holmen High School in La Crosse had a substantial number of rostered girls and made a priority of recruiting and getting their wrestlers equal competition. An all-girls division was added at the WI Challenge Series in Wausau that year, and participation at that event has incrementally grown. The Challenge Series was considered an unofficial state championship for the girls in 2020.
The other piece to aid in visibility and legitimacy of girls wrestling in Wisconsin happened as in-state universities began offering varsity programs while the college scene for women steadily developed around the country. In 2018, Lakeland University announced the addition of the first NCAA women’s program in Wisconsin. UW-Stevens Point added a program in 2019, Carthage in 2020 and Concordia in 2021. There are more than 100 colleges that offer varsity women's wrestling programs.
On June 24th, 2020, the Wisconsin Wrestling Coaches Association and the Coaches’ Advisory Committee submitted a proposal to the WIAA Board of Control to add an all-girls division in the state championship series for wrestling. It was unanimously voted on as yes, 10-0.
Hard-nosed visionaries creating opportunities and creating visibility—that’s what has led us to this historic weekend for Wisconsin. What was an occasional female wrestler on the mats mixed into brackets with boys is now commonplace.
For the first time ever, Wisconsin will have an official association backed championship for the girls.
More than 400 girls went through OPC testing (weight management) in Wisconsin this season and the WIAA championship event at the La Crosse Center on Saturday will showcase the largest tournament in state history. There are 261 wrestlers registered.
Two of the leading high schools of registered athletes are notably Ronald Reagan (19) and Holmen (14). Nine more teams have five or more girls listed—Martin Luther (9), Muskego (8), Merrill (6), Oregon (6), Whitnall/Greendale (6), Marinette (5), Wausau West (5), Eau Claire North (5) and Barron (5).
The WIAA state tournament provides legitimacy and a long-sought-after opportunity for girls. It creates the space for the sport to grow and for female wrestlers, like in any other sport, to represent their communities in a championship environment as an extension of the classroom. The WIAA is showcasing their belief in the sport, and are eagerly designing a welcoming environment for growth.
The time is now, and Wisconsin is in good company alongside 33 other states that have an official association-backed championship for girls.
Unofficial Folkstyle State Championship Locations & Numbers
** 2014 was the first year the WWF listed the event in Trackwrestling**
I (Gabby Lord-Klein) will be on site this weekend to blog and share updates from the floor on social media. If you see me, say hi!