It was my first high school wrestling tournament, and I had only a vague idea of what I was supposed to do. I had my headgear on and was warming up by taking shots on an imaginary opponent. I had worked hard, but I didn't have the skill level to seriously compete. Still, I enjoyed wrestling for the most part, and tried my best.
Then, I saw her.
A girl was warming up across the mat from me. I immediately became worried. I wasn't necessarily scared of her. In real life, why would I be afraid of a 5-foot-6 girl who probably weighed no more than 120 pounds? But this was wrestling, and odds were that if she was out there, she probably had some technique. This made me uneasy, and, truth be told, a bit queasy. Boys do not lose to girls. Our society just does not allow it.
One time, in fourth grade baseball, a girl struck me out. How did handle it? Well, six years later, I still regretted it. Older and wiser now, I realize this is a sexist attitude. I should want to succeed because I am facing an opponent -- any opponent.
That still did not stop me from wanting to avoid wrestling the girl. If I was more skilled in wrestling, I would have taken her on, no question. But I wasn't any good. So I began to contemplate the unthinkable:
What if I lost?
I spent the next 20 minutes trying to guess how much she weighed, and was still on edge until I learned she was in a lower weight class then me and would wrestle someone else on my team. (She ended up losing.)
That was a close one.
This came to mind when I read the Prep Rally post about Mina Johnson, the Virginia eighth-grade football player who sat out a game against a North Carolina team last week because her team's opponent had reservations about playing against a girl.
Similarly, when Cedar Falls High School female wrestler Cassy Herkelman was given a forfeit during the Iowa state tournament last February, it became national news.
The forfeit was given when her opponent, Linn-Mar High's Joel Northup, conceded.
The national wrestling community's reaction was a resounding "WHAT!?" The Iowa state high school tournament is one of the most competitive in the country. Kids train tirelessely and shed pounds dangerously for it. In Iowa, arguably the state with the greatest wrestling tradition, this is huge.
"As a matter of conscience and my faith I do not believe that it is appropriate for a boy to engage a girl in this manner," was Northup’s explanation.
Northup probably would have avoided the media storm had he said he "pulled a hammy" or ate a little too much and showed up overweight. Instead, Northup sounded to many like a Bible-thumping sexist whose views harkened back to the 1950s.
In the wrestling world, Northup's reaction is viewed with a sense of puzzlement and wonder. When I asked Dan Gable, the legendary wrestler and coach for Iowa, he said, "If somehow I wouldn't have been sat down and talked to, which I don't think I would have been, I don't think I would have ever even considered not wrestling against a girl. My background support system was just different than his."
The background support system -- family, coaches, friends -- is obviously a big part in this. To most wrestlers, they do not care who it is on the mat, be it a boy or a girl. Bubba Jenkins, a NCAA wrestling champion this year, said he would have tried to "crush her."
"Wrestle whoever they put in front of you regardless of the color or sex. The object is to win and beat anybody in front of you. . . . People forget that and put politics in it."
Northup evidently believed it is immoral for a boy and girl to press their bodies upon each other in a form of combat. Wrestling is probably the most "naked" of all sports. It is just you and your opponent, underneath. It is difficult to see the crowd, but the entire crowd can see you wearing little more than a thin layer of spandex.
It is also the sport that involves the most physicality. It is truly a test of outwilling your opponent. Wrestling is a sport where you develop a subconscious relationship with your opponent. He (or she) has gone through the same rigorous training you have, and you feel for each other. Very rarely is there dirty play in wrestling. The Greeks believed in this philosophy of one-on-one so much that wrestlers sometimes competed naked. Not much has changed today, other than a small, form-fitting singlet.
So, I can understand Northup's point of view to an extent. It is a little weird having to wrestle a girl. It does not seem right, in the traditional usage of the word. It is strange enough that you are going to spend the next six minutes basically groping a girl in a crowd of people, but your purpose must be to manhandle her and get her on her back and pin her any way possible.
Gable made a good point when he said "Now, do I believe boys and girls should wrestle each other from a competitive point of view? No. I think there's much more of a physical advantage for males based on genetics. I believe it should be male against male, female against female. Now, if there's not that opportunity, then so be it."
The problem is there are not enough girls competing for them to have their own division.
When Gable wrestled, he had never even heard of a woman competing in high school. "I'm not even sure there weren't a few out there -- none that I ever noticed or had any glory that made me notice. I don't think there was, because I think somehow I would've known about it," he said.
Frankie Edgar, the UFC champ, said he'd wrestled one girl, and that was in eighth grade. "I won."
Should Northup have wrestled Cassy Herkelman? Yeah, of course he should have. Should Mina Johnson have been welcomed onto the football field? Yes to that as well. But is it a bit odd to play against a girl? I can understand those like Northrup who say yes. In regular society, it is just not normal.
But he should have wrestled.
Brendan O'Hare is a freelance sportswriter who runs the sports blog www.pineriders.com.
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