George and Clark qualify for second-ever Colorado girls wrestling state tournament
The Routt County wrestlers are proving just how fast the sport is growing nationwide
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Wrestling is not just for guys.
Steamboat Springs High School sophomore Adalia George and Soroco High School freshman Mckenzie Clark are making that clearer than ever as they head to the second-ever Colorado State Girls Wrestling State Championships at Thornton on Saturday, Feb. 8.
The athletes took very different paths to reach the state tournament, but both had to navigate similar terrain, rutted by gender norms and social stigmas, all while gaining praise and support from their coaches, teammates and community.
Wrestling by gender
George wrestled boys in the beginning of the season before tagging along with Clark for the last two weeks to all-girls tournaments. She said battling each gender has its benefits.
“When I’m wrestling a guy, my technique has to be better. I will never win, because I’m stronger than them. Unless the kid is really weak, 90% of the time, they’re stronger than me,” George said. “Girls are more flexible, so pinning them takes longer, because their elbows can go all the way over here. I feel like that just means your technique has to be better. It makes you a better wrestler, wrestling girls.”
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Last year, George wrestled just males before meeting her first female competitors at regionals, which stunned her a bit, since girls are difficult to wrestle due to their flexibility. This year, George took fourth, but she said she should have finished third. She’s headed to state either way.
At her first high school regional, Clark was strong. She defeated every opponent by pin en route to the first-place match at 147 pounds, which she lost by way of fall in one minute and 39 seconds.
“She did outstanding at regionals,” said Soroco wrestling head coach Jay Whaley. “In fact, she beat kids she wasn’t supposed to beat. It was amazing. She figured out what she needed to do.”
Clark began wrestling as an eighth grader after multiple hand surgeries stopped her from playing basketball. She competed with only guys, so her first high school season was also her first grappling against girls.
“They’re hard to wrestle, but it’s more fair, compared to wrestling with the guys,” Clark said. “When I wrestled the girls for the first time, it was easier, but it was a good challenge.”
George spent most of the 2018-19 season losing to guys, but that didn’t deter her from sticking with the sport. She qualified for state but was pinned in both her matches at state. She’s hoping for a podium finish this year.
“I’ve learned you can put in 100% into everything and still fail, but that can’t stop you. Last year I got beat so many times. I can’t tell you how many times I got pinned. Losing sucks,” George said. “But I’m putting in more than 110% effort. You’ve got to learn to bounce back. Resilience is a really big thing that I’ve learned and just being proud of what you put in no matter the results.”
Realizations like that is why Colorado Mesa University head women’s wrestling coach Travis Mercado enjoys the sport of wrestling. Mercado has been coaching women’s wrestling for about a decade, most recently taking on the Mavericks women’s program, which is in its second year.
“I think you learn some very important life skills from wrestling — more than you do from any other sport,” he said. “Why would we limit that to 50% of the population? Why can’t we allow these young ladies to experience the same thing that we’ve been able to experience?”
‘I wouldn’t change it’
The girls have more and more options to wrestle separately, but there’s still challenges females have to face. George and Clark are the sole girls on their teams. They only practice and travel with males, but they have never felt uncomfortable.
At first, Clark was intimidated by her teammates, not because of their gender, but because they were all a couple of years older than her. Now, she said they are like her brothers.
“I think she’s accepted better by the wrestlers than she is by some of the community, which is unfortunate,” Whaley said. “I think the boys take really good care of her. They don’t treat her any differently.”
Whaley said Soroco has had girls wrestle in the past, but there is still a stigma that accompanies girls doing an atypical sport, like wrestling or football.
Both Steamboat wrestling head coach Jordan Bonifas and Whaley said they don’t coach girls any differently than guys. Obviously, they have to change how they speak and what they say to each athlete based on how they learn and their personality, but other than that, nothing changes.
Aside from coaching, Whaley has noticed a few differences between male and female wrestlers.
Signed up: 280 526
Regionals: 240 360
State: 80 150
“All the girls are doing their hair before the wrestling match,” he said. “It’s no different than boys or girls basketball. They’re still athletes — still wrestlers.”
A huge part of competing in wrestling is being aware of and maintaining a certain weight, something that is already a sensitive subject for many high school girls.
“We talked at the beginning and talked like, girls are obviously different than guys,” Bonifas said of George. “One, you shouldn’t cut a whole lot of weight. You should just wrestle at your natural (weight). Plus, she’s super athletic and super strong. It’s different, but we just made sure we’re comfortable with it.”
Clark, who wrestles at 147 pounds, said she hasn’t had to actively lose weight, which keeps that aspect of the sport from becoming an issue for her.
George said she knew that keeping an eye on her weight was just part of the deal and one of the rules. The Sailor has a more muscular physique than the average high school girl, but George said she loves how she looks, even if other people may judge her for it.
“I’d rather be able to do all this cool stuff, than look like something,” she said. “Your appearances aren’t everything. I don’t want to look like the Hulk, but this is my body and that’s just how it is. I wouldn’t change it.”
The state championship will be nearly twice as large as it was in 2019, when 80 girls from two regionals competed. The 2020 state tournament will feature 150 girls who qualified through three regionals, according to Ernie Derrera, the former assistant commissioner of wrestling at CHSAA. He’s been overseeing the girls wrestling pilot program.
“It’s exciting, but it’s not unexpected, the growth we’ve seen,” Derrara said. “If you give the girls a platform to participate in the sport, they would participate, and it would grow. It’s growing at the rate we would expect. … Next year, when it’s sanctioned, I would not be surprised to see 800 to 900 girls participating in girls wrestling.”
Both Colorado and Missouri are in the second and final years of a pilot or implementation program before officially sanctioning the sport in 2020. If no other state joins their ranks by next winter, 20 states will have sanctioned girls high school wrestling seasons.
Meanwhile, Illinois, Nevada, New York and Virginia have girls wrestling seasons, but they are not sanctioned by their respective high school athletic associations.
In 2020, Soroco will likely have another wrestler in Whaley’s daughter Larhae.
Steamboat Athletic Director Luke DeWolfe said at the end of the season, he will sit down with the wrestling coaches and see if an additional coach or transportation is an option for the 2020-21 season. Potentially, there could be a co-op formed between Steamboat and Soroco.
The opportunities to wrestle in college are growing rapidly as well. The National Wrestling Coaches Association said more than 70 colleges offer a varsity women’s wrestling program. In 2020, the NWCA Multi-Divisional National Duals will host separate NAIA and NCAA women’s divisions for the first time.
Mercado said the biggest thing bolstering the growth of the sport is simply giving girls the opportunity to wrestle other girls, rather than boys. He thinks having a separate girls division is not only making the athletes themselves more open to joining the sport but also their parents.
Mercado and his wife would contemplate what would happen if they had a daughter.
“What if we have a girl, would she wrestle? And my wife was like, ‘No, she wouldn’t wrestle,’” he said. “Now, we have a daughter, and my wife says, ‘Why wouldn’t she wrestle?’”
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