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Girl Wrestlers Gain Ground

Times Staff Writer

Watching a bloodied and shaken eighth-grader continue to fight after sustaining a broken nose, Coach Donnie Stephens was impressed.

What he heard later sealed his admiration. Instead of sitting out the rest of the season while the break mended, the kid kept going -- knowing it would have to be re-broken later in order to set properly.

Stephens said he knew then “we had a real wrestler” coming into his program at West Covina High. Only in this case, it was a 90-pound, 13-year-old girl.

Her name is Norine Cruz, now a 98-pound, 17-year-old senior and the top-ranked female wrestler in California in her weight class.

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Cruz is one of nearly 5,000 girls wrestling this season nationwide, according to the U.S. Girls Wrestling Assn. That’s up from 3,700 last year and marks a more than threefold increase in the last five years.

Looking back, Cruz considers the decision about her nose as “a no-brainer.” Missing matches, she said, is never a serious consideration.

Today, she will be among more than 100 girls from schools across the state competing at Thousand Oaks High School in the fifth annual Williams Cup, one of the nation’s largest and longest-running girls-only wrestling tournaments.

The event is a welcome departure for many participants, because the girls spend most of the rest of the season competing against boys. There are no girls’ teams in California.

Today’s tournament is one of about a dozen such events statewide, a reflection of the rapid rise in the sport’s popularity among girls.

In 1997, the first year the USGWA held a national championship, 116 girls participated. The next year, 272 competed. Last year, there were 604.

Opportunities at the college level are also rising. Seven U.S. colleges and universities and more than 20 in Canada offer women’s wrestling. Ten years ago, there were none.

And this summer, for the first time, women’s wrestling will be a medal sport in the Olympics, which is expected to result in participation soaring again.

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“I could guarantee that NBC is going to put it on in prime time,” said Doug Reese, the women’s coach at the University of Minnesota at Morris, the first U.S. college to offer the sport. “It’s going to sell beer ads. Who doesn’t want to see women in singlets doing battle? But the novelty will wear off and people will see it’s a great sport. A lot of girls are going to want to try it.”

Jen Kellogg, a freshman who wrestles for San Marino High, sings in the school choir, has a leading role in the school play and carries a 4.0 grade-point average. She enjoys shopping and movies, and took piano lessons as a youngster.

But she is transformed when she slips into a wrestling singlet and strides into the musty room to lock horns with sweaty boys.

“I’m not a girlie-girl or anything, but I’m actually quite feminine,” Kellogg said.

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Cruz, by the way she handled her broken nose, had somewhat proved her toughness when she arrived at West Covina. But she still heard whispers: She wouldn’t last; she couldn’t take it; she would never win; she was only doing it to meet boys.

Countless times she told smart alecks that no, there wasn’t any mud, oil or Jello in this wrestling.

“People talk all this bull about you,” Cruz said. “That just makes me want to prove them wrong. If you give up, then they were right, so it makes you work harder.”

The emergence of girls in contact sports traditionally reserved for boys is a recent phenomenon. Water polo gained official status for girls in 1996-97 in Southern California; around the country, girls also now play ice hockey, lacrosse and occasionally football.

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For female pioneers, cracking the wrestling room door has been only one hurdle.

Despite its rise in popularity, girls’ wrestling is sanctioned only in Texas and Hawaii.

The California Interscholastic Federation’s Southern Section requires that at least 20% of member schools field teams before it will sanction a sport for championships. In Southern California, that is roughly 110 schools.

Although a substantial number of girls wrestle on boys’ teams, only a handful of schools would have enough to fill out girls-only squads.

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But several coaches are lobbying for a way around the rule, arguing that many more girls would participate if the sport was official.

“It’s been a Catch-22 for a long time,” said Shannon Yancey, a former national champion and founder of the Thousand Oaks tournament. “It gets better and better every year, but they’re making us jump through a bunch of hoops. They want to be sure there will be enough girls.”

Complicating the movement are coaches who insist that girls have no place in the wrestling room.

San Marino Coach Daren de Heras said that earlier this season an opposing coach opted to forfeit his team’s 103-pound match against Kellogg rather than have its boy compete against a girl.

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Some girls’ proponents admit to previously having reservations.

“I’m old-fashioned and raised conservative,” Diamond Bar Coach Jack Cooprider said. “I didn’t want to let girls on my team.”

Valerie Pries changed Coop- rider’s mind. He said Pries is as dedicated and diligent in practice as any boy he has coached. She participates in all the conditioning exercises and has never asked for special treatment. Her commitment has made her the top-ranked girl in the state at 103 pounds.

“She’s just one of the guys now, so to speak,” Cooprider said. “It’s still not something I’d be raising my daughter to do, but there is no denying that some girls really are wrestlers.”

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Top-level girls hold their own against boys. In 1998, Olivia Ocampo of Channel Islands High in Oxnard won a league championship. Last year, Cruz was 10-7 against boys at the varsity level. This season, Pries is 7-7 against boys.

Still, coaches say there are concerns when girls compete against boys. For example, wrestlers who are close to the weight limit often get on the scale without their clothes. Cooprider recalls his team being summoned to a weigh-in and Pries arriving to find two naked boys.

The Diamond Bar coach also frets about certain moves and techniques. The “high crotch,” for example, is a move in which one wrestler thrusts his or her arm between an opponent’s legs to attempt a takedown.

“How are you going to teach that to a girl?” Cooprider said.

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Boys who compete against the girls say they are often apprehensive, fearing that techniques they’ve been taught to use might seem indecent.

“Certain moves might require something that appears inappropriate,” said Jeffrey Pan, a San Marino sophomore. “But I know and the girl I’m wrestling knows and the coaches all know that it’s purely technical, nothing else.”

It’s even more difficult for boys to wrestle girls for a different reason: “Win, and all you did was beat a girl,” Pan said. “Lose, and the guys are going to make fun of you.”

Pries has little sympathy for competitors who let that fear get to them. “I’m just like, ‘Get over it,’ ” she said. “I’m just a wrestler. I’m not a girl wrestler.”

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There are, however, situations when even the best girl wrestlers can be intimidated.

Cruz acknowledges a strength difference against boys in her weight class.

“If I see a guy who is huge and buff, I’m like, ‘I hope I don’t get too roughed up,’ ” she said. “But I look at that as practice. My goal is the girls’ state championship so it doesn’t really matter how I do against the boys.”

No matter how rough things get, the girls say they are in wrestling to stay. And they’re making believers out of many.

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“It used to be you’d go to a tournament, and if a girl was wrestling, everyone would stop and watch and it would be a really big deal if she won,” Cooprider said. “Now it’s rare to go to a tournament and not see four, five or six girls wrestling.”


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