Since the 1930s, Missouri and Kansas high school boys wrestlers have gone to the mat to find out who’s the best in their respective states. This year, Missouri added girls’ wrestling to its state championship lineup, only the 12th state to do so.
Wrestling’s becoming increasingly popular for girls in Missouri, with the number getting involved in the sport more than quadrupling in a year.
“I looked at that database and there were 970 female athletes registered in the optimal performance calculator, which is amazing,” said Greg Stahl, an assistant director for the Missouri High School Activities Association (MHSAA). He oversees both the boys and girls state wrestling championships.
Kearney High School saw 50 girls show up for an informational meeting before the season started, according to coach Jake Hill.
“We were blown away with, here specifically at Kearney, interest level,” he said, adding that the girls team started with 20 members. By the time students participated in districts, the Bulldogs had lost a few participants, but still had 14 girls.
“That dropoff is natural for guys, too,” added Hill.
Kearney sent two girls wrestlers to state: Emalie Olson and Lexie Cole. Olson, who’s a junior and wrestled against boys and girls since she was 7, remembered her mixed reaction to MHSAA’s division of girls and boys.
“At first I was a little hurt because it meant my chances of competing with the boys were gone, but after this year it’s actually really made me excited for it and to see what’s to come for the future,” she said.
Hill put Olson up against boys and girls during the regular season, and said he knew of her potential before she entered high school.
“I don’t know exactly how old, but (an) elementary school girl who was scratching and biting, who was mean and had a tenacity to her that we still see today — minus the scratching and biting,” he said.
The state tournament was held Feb. 14-17 at Mizzou Arena in Columbia. Cole, a sophomore, won the state championship. Cole won the state championship, but Olson missed making her weight by 4 ounces, and was disqualified before the title match.
Wrestling is one of the most popular sports for six to eight-year-old girls at the Kansas City Sports Commission’s WIN camps. Chuck Kearney, the men’s and women’s wrestling coach at the University of Saint Mary in Leavenworth, Kansas, helped out with one of the camps over the summer and was impressed with what he saw.
“They’re excited. They’re smiling. They’re bouncing around. They’re karate kicking. They’re doing all that stuff. … We participate in a room that’s padded and we do things that normally get you kicked out of school. Isn’t that awesome?” he said.
Olson already knows she’d like to compete in college.
“I would love to wrestle in college and maybe beyond college,” she said. “But I know that at some point life does have to start. If it’s not in the cards for me, then it’s not in the cards for me.”
It might be difficult for Olson to find a college team. Out of more than 350 NCAA Division I schools, only one — Presbyterian College in South Carolina — has a women’s wrestling team. But that changes at NCAA Division II and III schools and small colleges (NAIA), though close by, there are only four programs in Missouri and five in Kansas.
But as girls wrestling finds more participants, Kearney with Saint Mary said, the caliber of the competition is getting better all the time.
“You look at the techniques, you look at the actual wrestling that’s going on. It’s extremely advanced,” he said. “Fifteen years ago, it was middle school caliber wrestling. Now, they’re hitting on cutting edge stuff.”
North Carolina and Colorado also held their first girls state wrestling championships this year. Kansas may not be far off: The Kansas State High Activities Association will vote on the possibility this spring.
Greg Echlin is a freelance sports reporter for KCUR 89.3.