KINGSTON — Natalie Tucker was succinct about her reason for being at the Wyoming Seminary Upper School on Wednesday night.
“I like beating up boys,” said the 9-year-old from Vernon, New Jersey.
Best of all, she does so without being sent to the principal’s office.
Tucker and several teammates from the Venom Girls Wrestling Club were among the 25 participants, along with members of the new Seminary girls wrestling team, attending Girls Only Wrestling Night. The event featured three-time world champion and 2016 Olympian Adeline Gray.
Rebecca Brennan took up wrestling for another reason.
“All other sports are too easy,” said the 10-year-old from New Paltz, New York.
Steve Simpson’s 11-year-old daughter, Rhayna, an elementary student in the Delaware Valley School District, was less talkative but also got hooked on wrestling.
“I took my older two to a wrestling match. One of my friends was coaching it,” Simpson recalled. “My older two didn’t want anything to do with it. And her, at 6 years old, was tugging on my shirt saying ‘Dad, I can do this.’ And the next year, we signed up.”
About a dozen girls participated this past season in junior high and high school wrestling in District 2, which encompasses the Wyoming Valley Conference and Lackawanna Conference. Few ever got to wrestle, often only getting wins via forfeit.
Gray’s high school experience at Bear Creek High School in Lakewood, Colorado, was quite different. She wrestled on the boys team, and in 130 matches she received only 10 forfeit victories.
“The ratio is definitely about the culture,” said Gray, who started wrestling at age 6. “I had one school who consistently forfeited to me. And it was really because the leadership in that room was about not wrestling against women. So when I got to see it from the other side where so many teams treated me as an athlete, it was just someone stepping up and saying ‘Hey, they worked hard at this sport, they have experience, we’re not going to make this about losing or beating a girl. You’re an athlete when you step out on that mat.’
”And they gave me that respect to step on the mat and wrestle me.”
Girls wrestling has grown dramatically over past five years, according to the National Federation of High School Associations. There are 2,091 high school girls programs this year, up from 1,441 in 2012. Nearly 6,000 more girls are wrestling than in 2012, with the NFHSA listing the number of participants at 14,587.
Still only six state high school associations — California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Texas and Washington — have girls wrestling as a sanctioned sport and hold state championships. Female wrestlers have to be on boys teams in other states.
“The biggest thing is about coaches being opened to the idea of coaching women and about having them on the team,” Gray said. “We’re in this limbo period where we don’t have the numbers to have our own programs yet, but we still have opportunities that are tangible for us.”
Those opportunities opened at Seminary, where Erin Vandiver runs the fledgling girls wrestling program. A coach for the women’s world and Olympic teams, Vandiver graduated from Grove City High School where she was the first female to place at districts and win a regional match in an event sanctioned by the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association.
“We have 14 girls on the roster and it’s taking off quickly,” Vandiver said. “They are blending in well with Wyoming Sem culture and community. They are working out with the boys even, we have our structured practices and have our full schedule lined up.”
Wednesday’s clinic started with the Seminary girls demonstrating moves to the youngsters. Then after some tumbling, which seemed more popular with the younger wrestlers, the girls paired off for some first-hand instruction from Gray. The Olympian emphasized proper technique and form in a step-by-step manner.