When high school athletes talk about the highlights of their seasons, they typically don’t include team meetings.
However, members of the Tigard High School girls wrestling team continue to mention how excited they are for their team meetings this year. It’s not the meetings themselves that are exciting, but what they represent to the team.
“We have our own team meetings now,” junior Natalie Wilhoit said. “During tournaments, the focus is really how well we’re doing as a team rather than just piled in with the boys. We get a lot more attention.”
The inaugural season for the Tigard girls wrestling team is underway, and as a team separate from the boys, the girls are enjoying all that comes with being their own separate entity. Yes, including team meetings.
In April, the Oregon School Activities Association announced that girls wrestling would be sanctioned as a new sport starting this school year. It’s not a common occurrence. The last time the OSAA added a sport was in 1979 when the delegation voted to add softball.
Previously, girls were part of the boys wrestling team. Girls wrestled girls on opposing teams in the same or a close weight class. Or they sometimes wrestled boys in the same weight class.
Girls wrestling has seen a growth in participation in the last five years, enough so that the OSAA felt it warranted becoming its own sport. With girls wrestling on its own, coaches at Tigard have already seen an explosion in interest in the sport locally.
“The sport is growing so fast nationwide,” said Sarah Waddell, assistant coach with the girls team. “Last year, we only had one or two tournaments with full brackets with weight classes for girls. The rest were like, ‘Okay, you four are the closest in weight so you can wrestle together.’ We’ve now had three tournaments that had every weight class for girls, and that’s in a year.”
The National Federation of State High School Associations compiled its most recent High School Athletics Participation Survey for the 2021-2022 school year. According to the survey, girls wrestling saw a 50 percent increase in participation since 2018-2019.
By the end of last season, there were five or six girls on the wrestling team, according to Kaleb Reese, head coach for the girls team. So far this year, the girls team has 14 wrestlers who regularly come to practice, meetings, and events.
On Dec. 29, the Tigard girls team hosted their first every Tigard Girls Invitational tournament, featuring 10 local teams. Beaverton High School finished with the highest team score, but a few individual Tigard wrestlers placed high enough to medal.
Sydney Knipe took home the lone first-place finish for Tigard with her win in the 140-pound weight bracket. Rhaya Waddell scored a second-place finish for Tigard at 120 pounds, and Valery Chun-Sajqui came in third at 140 pounds.
Setting up the program
The Tigard coaches heard about the potential of the OSAA sanctioning girls wrestling as a sport toward the end of last season. They started discussing plans for the new team should the vote come through, and once it did, they were able to get a jumpstart on the team’s first season.
That began with Geoff Jarman, head coach of the boys team for the last 15 years, and other coaches going to the school board to get approval for the new team. That approval meant funding for the team for things like gear, travel, and a new coaching staff.
Reese has been a coach with the Tigard High School wrestling program for the last nine years, and founded the Tigard youth wrestling club.
Sarah Waddell came to wrestling with her older son. She volunteered to help with the team while he was wrestling and continued to do so with her daughter, Rhaya Waddell, wrestling. This is her third year involved with the team, and her first as an official coach.
The creation of the girls team has helped to increase participation numbers.
“Them making girls wrestling a sport made it easier to recruit because the newer girls would know they wouldn’t be wrestling guys,” said sophomore Rhaya Waddell. “We had a lot of new girls join the team, which is really exciting.”
Creating a new girls team has also increased attention on the sport. Reese said he’s heard from more students interested in the sport since the girls team started.
Even before the girls team started, Reese said they were always welcoming to people new to the sport. That’s just as true now with the new team. While the boys and girls are separate teams, they do work together in practice.
Jarman said he aims to have a family feel in the wrestling program as a whole.
“In wrestling, it’s so easy to play that ‘what I do is harder than what you do,’” he said. “If the boys see the girls going through everything they do, there’s that respect thing where they see them going through the exact same practice they’re going through, and there’s a ton of respect and with that respect comes that desire for them to win.”
The coaches saw that play out recently when Junior Valery Chun was wrestling in the championship match at a tournament. During her match, members from both the boys and girls team watched from the mat to cheer her on. Chun won the match and finished first in the tournament for the first time in her wrestling career.
Wilhoit said that when she had to wrestle boys in past seasons, she was too focused on the match to really think about it, but there were some noticeable differences.
“You’re just trying to beat them. It was different because boys and girls are so different. Even though we were the same weight, they have so much more strength.”
Chun said it wasn’t always too fun to wrestle against boys.
“I had a match last year where the dude was like six-feet tall and I’m not even five-feet tall,” she said. “It was very challenging. He was just reaching. I couldn’t do much. He just cradled me.”
Benefits for girls
Sarah Waddell said wrestling is a great teacher for kids. A big reason for that is because it creates adversity, which presents the kids with a chance to grow as people.
“We hold kids accountable,” she said. “We work them the hardest they’re going to work, but we’re also a soft place to land when they need us.”
She also said wrestling does a lot for girls specifically.
“It gives them a positive body imagine no matter what their weight is because they know that they’re strong. They know that they’re fierce. They know that they’re athletes,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if they’re a 100-pounder or a 235-pounder. Every single girl that wrestles, they are true with their weight. They know what they weigh. They wear it on their sleeve.”
Jarman added that wrestling skills are also a form of self-defense, as they teach the athletes to get off their backs with someone on top of them, as well as put someone on their back.
Sarah Waddell said wrestling does great things for girls’ mental health, as well.
“They’re out there not getting pushed around,” she said. “In a lot of places, I think girls feel a lot less powerful than they should. I think this sport gives them a lot of self-confidence, a lot of positive body image, and a lot of really great things that society does not allow them to have.”
Chun agreed. She said she wasn’t always the best student, but since she joined the wrestling team, it has helped her stay out of trouble.
“I don’t like being pushed around by people,” she said. “I love the sport because of that. It makes me feel like such a badass person.”
Celebrating wins, learning from losses
The coaches emphasize to their wrestlers the importance of celebrating victories no matter how small. That could be something like lasting multiple rounds against a more experienced or larger opponent. Or just celebrating trying something new where you are out there all on your own.
That’s one big thing that has kept Rhaya Waddell wrestling.
“The sport itself really hurts, but It’s really fun,” she said. “Winning, so fun. I like winning and winning in wrestling is so much more fun than in any sport because it was all you.”
Jarman said that success in wrestling isn’t based on wins and losses, especially for those new to the sport.
And like any new sport, there are still plenty of things to figure out. Reese said there is still some tinkering to be done with how to run dual meets because of uneven numbers across schools. He’s also waiting to hear from OSAA how districts will be set for championship tournaments later this year.
However, the uncertainty and flexibility of this season just falls in line with what the coaches preach to their wrestlers anyway.
“You either win or you learn,” Sarah Waddell said. “We don’t talk about losses. Through adversity we find our biggest lessons, and losing is one of those things that’s adversity. We either win or we learn a lot and make adjustments for next time.”