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Girls Hit the Mats

As more girls participate in high school wrestling, they're competing against—and defeating—boys

By Jeré Longman in Vermont

Rachel Hale kept the boy subdued on his hands and knees, then on his stomach. She hooked her leg tightly around his, flattening his hips toward the mat, trying to turn him on his back and pin his shoulders. Finally, the referee declared her the winner.

In February, Hale, a 15-year-old freshman at Mount Anthony Union High School in Bennington, Vermont, became the first girl in Vermont and the third girl in the nation to win a state wrestling championship while competing against boys.

Hale's victory shows the growing success of girl wrestlers, who have qualified for state tournaments in as many as 49 states and have placed among the top finishers in at least 10, according to Kent Bailo, the director of the United States Girls' Wrestling Association.

"Any girl could do this, too, if they've tried as hard as they could and stuck to their goal and worked at it every single day," says Hale. "I wanted this so bad."

During the 2009-10 school year, more than 6,000 girls competed in high school wrestling, a 20 percent increase in four years, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

"I think literally every state but Pennsylvania has had a girl qualify for state," Bailo says.

Still, the number of female wrestlers remains small compared with the more than 270,000 boys who wrestle in U.S. high schools.

Separate Teams?

Just a week before Hale's win, a boy in the Iowa state tournament refused to wrestle against a girl, citing religious reasons. He chose to forfeit the match instead.

In the Vermont championship, things played out differently. "She deserves to wrestle," says Cody Jolley, the 16-year-old sophomore from Spaulding High in Barre, whom Hale beat to win the state championship in the 103-pound weight class. "It's not like she didn't earn it."

Aaron Roucoulet, 17, of Rutland High School, lost to Hale several times this season. "I respect her more because she's dominant in a male sport," he says. "She has the best technique of anyone I've wrestled at 103."

The Girls' Wrestling Association says it's urging more states to join California, Hawaii, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington in offering separate high school teams and championships for girls. That would help prevent gender conflicts, Bailo says, and allow girls to successfully compete in upper weight classes, where they are at a greater disadvantage against boys because of differences in upper-body strength.

Hale began wrestling when she was 6. Last year, as an eighth-grader, she won a New England middle-school championship and finished third in a national competition.

"This is new to me," says Hale's coach, Scott Legacy, about having a girl on his team. "But she's a great kid. I see her as a wrestler, not a female."

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, April 4, 2011)