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Breaking Down the Door
Idaho’s top female wrestlers and coaches push for a separate girls state tournament to show there’s more to the sport after high school
Published: 2/27/2020 12:02:10 PM
 

From her husband to her children, Annie Foster’s life has revolved around wrestling, even before she took up the mantle of USA Idaho womens wrestling director.  

When Foster’s son began wrestling at the age of 6, he was simply following in his father’s footsteps. But in 2005, when her daughter turned 6 and asked to begin training in the family sport, Foster was reluctant. 

“I look back on the initial hesitation I had and I just think ‘why?’” Foster said. “To think I could have swayed her away from all that just makes me so sad.”

Eventually, her daughter began wrestling and Foster quickly discovered just how different parenting a boy through wrestling can be from a girl. When her daughter started moving through middle school and began high school, she could see the changes not just in the physicality of her daughter’s competition, but in the attitudes. 

“Boys and girls change at some point. Mentalities change. The attitudes of parents and coaches change — some good and some not so good,” Foster said.

Foster said her daughter took the changes in stride and decided she wanted to pursue a college career through wrestling. In order to get their daughter noticed by college coaches, Foster and her husband knew that their primary goals were to keep her safe and competitive in a space occupied largely by men. 

That’s been the goal for Foster ever since she began working as the Idaho womens wrestling director, she said. 

“While there are not as many as we would like, girls now have more opportunity to be seen in tournaments and competitions,” Foster said. “Having that increased comradery that we’re seeing now is so important for the sport.”

The Importance of Competition

While several nearby states such as Washington, California and Alaska sanction girls wrestling as a sport, Idaho has yet to follow suit. 

There are several female-based wrestling competitions throughout the year — most notably the Idaho Girls Wrestling Finals tournament. 

But there is currently no sanctioned state championship for female wrestlers in Idaho. 

This year, 103 female wrestlers from more than 60 Idaho high schools participated in the unsanctioned tournament, which nearly doubled the participation from the 2019 tournament. From there, 13 those girls will compete at this weekend’s boys wrestling state championship Friday and Saturday. 

With the introduction of last year’s unsanctioned championship and the continued participation, those involved with girls wrestling are hoping to change that distinction. Columbia Girls Wrestling Coach and USA Western Idaho Womens Program Director Amber Quintana has seen that participation grow since she graduated from her California high school wrestling team in 2014 and continued competing at the collegiate level. 

Quintana said she wants to push the importance for Idaho girls to have their own sanctioned state for the safety of the competitors as well as the notoriety for those looking to wrestle on college mats. 

“A 125-pound girl is not the same as a 125-pound boy. Yes, wrestling is a battle of skill. But hormones and extra testosterone come into play. Some aspects just don’t equal out,” Quintana said. “We don’t want these girls to get hurt. Boys have boys state. Why can’t girls have girls state?”

Both Quintana and Foster said the numbers surrounding girls wrestling speak for themselves. While they have seen growth in womens wrestling participation in Idaho, the same is happening across the nation. 

For more than 25 years, womens wrestling has been one of the fastest growing sports. The National Federation of State High School Associations reported the number of girls wrestling doubled from around 8,000 nationally in 2012 to more than 16,500 in 2018. 

At the start of 2020, there were just 21 states that sanctioned womens wrestling as a high school sport. Like the women in Idaho’s wrestling sphere, many in the other unsanctioned states are working to showcase this growth in the hopes of creating support for their female high school wrestlers. 

Part of that support, Quintana said, is pushing girls to think about wrestling outside the high school level. 
 

Borah's Kaci Bice competes against a Coeur d'Alene athlete during Idaho's unsanctioned girls state tournament.

What Comes Next  

There are approximately 70 colleges or universities throughout the United States that offer womens wrestling programs — most are smaller community or private schools. Of those, 31 are NCAA schools that have a club, varsity or varsity-club women’s wrestling program. 

“It’s still a battle to even make it on the mat at that level. This sport is just as much on the mat as it is off,” Quintana said. “I always tell these girls that they don’t just have to be great wrestlers, they have to have good grades, good service and show their skills in front of the right people to get that chance.”

Even though the sport is gaining popularity in colleges and universities, Quintana said some girls assume their wrestling careers end after high school. 

“You don’t have to stop at high school. Wrestling is just like any other sport,” Quintana said. 

Kaci Bice, a senior wrestler at Borah High School assumed that if she did end up going to college for a sport, it would be softball. Wrestling at the collegiate level wasn’t even an option for Bice until just two years ago. 

Similar to Foster’s worries about her daughter as a wrestler, Bice said her parents worried about her safety on the mat. Although she had practiced with her brothers when she was younger, Bice hadn’t officially competed until two years into high school. 

“Jumping back into the sport my sophomore year was so difficult because all these boys were so much stronger than me,” Bice said. “I was relearning everything my brothers taught me and I had to reteach my brain and body.” 

Next fall, Bice will attend Southwestern Oregon Community College on a womens wrestling scholarship. Because the concept of women receiving scholarships and moving on to college for wrestling is still growing in Idaho, Bice said finding the right program for her was a learning process. 

For high school wrestlers — girls and boys alike — capturing the attention of coaches and recruiters at tournaments and state competitions is a crucial step in the college program process. Bice said other women in her position as young female wrestlers have to take it upon themselves and be proactive about approaching college scholarships and programs. However, the support system from coaches to teammates is only growing, she said. 

“Contact coaches. Research the right programs for you. Go to camps and tournaments,” Bice said. “Girls just have to put themselves out there and it will be rewarding in the end.”

Bice is among several Idaho girls that have committed to womens wrestling college teams this season. Quintana expects to see even more girls follow suit as the season wraps up. 

Brigid Shannon is another female wrestler taking her talents to the collegiate mat. A senior wrestler at Idaho Falls High School, Shannon will attend Corban University in Salem, Oregon, next fall. 

Like many other girls, Shannon began wrestling at a young age because of her brother’s involvement in the sport. From there, her love of wrestling grew. 

Shannon said she remembers only knowing of one other Idaho female wrestler going to college for the sport. Now, she said she sees the excitement to wrestle for a womens program everywhere. 

“I got so excited at the thought of wrestling in college. I was always looking up colleges with women’s wrestling and watching for new ones,” Shannon said. “I just thought that if the boys can do it, I can too.”

Like many of her peers, Wen Suko began wrestling because she saw her brother’s passion for the sport. The 19-year-old Lakeland High School senior will attend Ottawa University in Arizona on a wrestling scholarship this fall. 

While Suko began wrestling her junior year from a love of watching her brother compete, she said she has seen the sport gain more females than expected in the last several years. 

“I’ve wrestled far more girls this year than in my junior year,” Suko said. “The word is getting out that we can be successful wrestlers.”

With the influx of female participation across Idaho, Suko said she saw enough girls competing this season to support a girls state competition. That kind of exposure from a state competition is what could help girls like Suko, Bice and Shannon get noticed by colleges or universities with womens wrestling programs. 

Moving Forward

Without any  Division I collegiate wrestling opportunities in Idaho, Foster said girls have to attend the right tournaments and competitions to be seen by college and university wrestling coaches. Having sanctioned tournaments and spaces for Idaho high school girls to showcase their wrestling talents will help the push for college participation, she said. 

“It’s an amazing opportunity to get to go to a college and wrestle,” Foster said. “I still think finding those opportunities for our female athletes is relatively new for coaches.”

Thinking about what comes after high school, Foster said, begins early for both the wrestlers and the coaches. 

“It’s remembering that female wrestlers are also part of the team and that team meeting won’t be in the boys’ locker room anymore. It’s the way we speak about the sport. The way we address peoples’ mindsets,” Foster said. “And I know that we have a lot of people excited about this kind of change.” 

Quintana doesn’t just refer to the numbers or excitement surrounding female wrestling participation at the high school and collegiate levels as growth. It’s a “movement.” 

She said it’s her job as a coach and the job of female supporters to promote that movement. 

“Two things are going to happen with this movement: girls will be knocking on doors and knocking them down,” Quintana said. “We have to be ready when they do.”

Idaho’s sanctioned state tournament begins Friday and concludes Saturday. Weigh-ins are scheduled for 7:30 a.m., with Session 1 set to begin 9 a.m. at the Ford Idaho Center. Brigid Shannon will take the mat Saturday, when Idaho's 4A and 5A teams compete.

 
 


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