A decade before Kiera Gabaldon was a college All-American wrestler, she was an elementary school student competing in a male sport.
When a high school near her home in Salem held a wrestling camp, she went. Among the other participants was a high school girl who had made a name for herself as a wrestler.
Gabaldon didn’t approve.
“When I was younger I had the same mindset boys did: Girls shouldn’t be here, not realizing what I was,” said Gabaldon, now a sophomore at Warner Pacific.
The 10-year-old version of Gabaldon matched up with that comparatively sized high school girl in the practice room, took her down with ease and threw her around the room.
“Wrestling with (her) and beating up on her, I’m like, is that wrestling like a girl?” Gabaldon said. “I don’t want to wrestle like a girl.
“Obviously, that mindset has changed. It’s something to be proud of to wrestle like a girl today, but back then it wasn’t. I guess I was ashamed of myself as a kid to be a women’s wrestler.”
In the past 10 years, Gabaldon has gone on to be a multi-time state champion wrestler at North Salem High School in girls tournaments. She placed fourth in her weight class at this year’s Women’s College Nationals.
Though wrestling remains a male-dominated sport, female participation has grown exponentially at all levels — and could bring the change that saves the sport.
“Wrestling needs all the help it can get. We all know that,” West Salem wrestling coach Mikey Baker said. “We’re always still going to be fighting the, ‘Are they going to cut it?’
“I like it. I’m not against it. It’s just different and I’m OK with it. I’m OK with something new and a little bit of a change.”
Sport struggles to survive
Wrestling, generally acknowledged as the oldest sport, has been battling to remain relevant – and alive – for a long time.
Three years ago wrestling was dropped from the Olympics, only to receive a reprieve.
When Portland State cut wrestling in 2009, it was the 670th college in the nation to do so, according to the National Wrestling Coaches Association, leaving Oregon with five colleges that had teams, down from 23 in the 1970s.
“When those levels above the high school level were dropping programs, there was less incentive for those kids,” OSAA Assistant Executive Director Brad Garrett said.
Nationally, there were 258,208 boys wrestling in the 2014-15 school year, a drop of over 20 percent from 335,160 in 1976-77, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
However, women’s wrestling is growing.
Twenty-seven colleges – four in Oregon – fielded women’s intercollegiate teams this season and 14 had club teams. Eastern Oregon University and Grays Harbor College in Aberdeen, Washington, are adding teams next season.
Six states – Alaska, California, Hawaii, Tennessee, Texas and Washington – sanction a high school state championship for girls.
There were 249 girls certified to wrestle in Oregon in the 2015-16 season, an increase of 103 from the previous year and three times the 81 who wrestled in 2005-06.
Nationally, there were 11,496 girls wrestling in high school in 2014-15, compared with 783 in 1993-94, according to the NWCA.
The push to include more girls may have started as a way to preserve the sport for boys, but the girls’ side has grown faster than expected.
“Wrestling being the toughest sport, it’s hard to force people to do, but I think just the opportunity being there, the willing and able bodies will find their way in there, and that’s all we need is the bodies in there and we’ll transform them into champions, whether it’s a girl or a guy,” North Salem coach Andy Pickett said.
Girls started by taking on boys
Girls have been wrestling at the high school level as far back as 1980 in the United States, but in order to do so, those pioneering girls had to wrestle exclusively against boys.
Each year, more regular season wrestling tournaments have been added for girls. But for a girl to compete in a high school dual meet – especially in Oregon – she usually will wrestle a boy.
In the current weight monitoring system at the high school level, boys have a distinct advantage. They are allowed to compete at 7 percent body fat, while girls must be at 12 percent.
Girls wrestling against boys has always been a sticky issue.
“Wrestling girls it’s always harder because girls are mean, period,” said McNary freshman Brooke Burrows, who placed fourth in the girls state tournament this year. “And so we get scrappy with each other, and it’s always a little bit harder with girls, I think, because they’re about the same muscle.
“They’re close to your weight, closer than the guys usually are, and they don’t think less of you.”
Some coaches have taken the hard line that girls should never compete against boys. Most have been more accepting.
Over a decade ago McKay coach Rick Herrin welcomed a girl, Julie Kirk, to his team.
It is not a coincidence that current McKay coach Troy Thomas and North Salem’s Pickett were teammates with Kirk in high school.
Nor is it a coincidence that McKay had four girls on its team this year.
Thomas and Pickett have both been proponents of girls wrestling.
“I think for a lot of coaches, it’s easier not to have girls on the team rather than have a girl because you’ve got to make a lot of special accommodations for a girl,” Pickett said.
“I think people are just more willing to accept it now. The expansion of the girls state tournament has really helped that. And that’s just going to keep growing, from what it looks like. This year they had the girls qualifier. It was huge. They had over 150 girls.”
It wasn’t long ago that coaches would choose to forfeit matches when one of their boys was matched against a girl.
“That was almost standard operating procedure,” McNary coach Jason Ebbs said. “That’s kind of wavered into a concept of individual choice now.
“There’s still people – boys, moms, dads, pick your value group – there’s still somebody out there that says, ‘I don’t want my son to wrestle a girl.’ That’s probably the most common voice I hear. From what I gather, there’s not many girls who say, I refuse to wrestle a boy.’”
State could add girls tournament
Since 2008, the OSAA has allowed girls to wrestle exhibition state championship matches at its state tournament. Those matches notoriously occur at times when there are few fans watching.
When a girl qualifies for both the regular state tournament and for the girls exhibition tournament, she is given the option of competing in one of them.
Under the OSAA rules that were changed in April, the state organization could add a girls division to the existing state tournament, starting next season.
Another option would be adding girls wrestling as a sanctioned team sport, but that could take decades for enough schools to add full teams to gain sanctioning.
“You wouldn’t have to have a girls and boys team. You would have a team that’s consisted of girls and boys,” Garrett said. “Hopefully by doing that, that will encourage more young ladies to participate, which is ultimately the end goal, create an opportunity for those kids.”
Fans cheer for women wrestlers
When Gabaldon walked into the Women’s College Wrestling Association nationals in Oklahoma in February, she saw how far her sport has come.
Six mats were full of college women while bloodthirsty fans cheered and wanted more.
Gabaldon had found her place.
“I was kind of just in awe because I saw six full-sized mats and just females justwrestling on them, and I was in shock for a little bit,” she said. “I can’t believe how big this is now.
“And then obviously I got ready and said, “I got to go whoop on them.’”
Opportunity in college
The benefit of women’s wrestling has been felt on the men’s side of the sport.
According to the National Wrestling Coaches Association, over 130 colleges have started or restarted wrestling teams since 2002. There now are more than 340 college men’s wrestling programs.
Of the 27 colleges that had women’s teams last year, all of them had men’s wrestling and many of those colleges started men’s programs alongside the women’s.
That has provided more opportunities for male wrestlers to compete in college.
With far more high school wrestlers being boys – .04 percent of high school wrestlers are girls – there also is a greater chance for a girl to wrestle in college.
“I can tell you if you’re a female wrestler, you have a better chance of getting a scholarship than a male wrestler, absolutely,” said Warner Pacific coach Frank Johnson, who was the coach at Pacific when it became the first NCAA college to add women’s wrestling in 2000.
“That’s just the way it is because it’s an emerging sport.”
In 1993, the University of Minnesota-Morris became the first U.S. college to sponsor women’s wrestling as a varsity sport.
The NCAA has a classification for emerging sports – ones that are increasing in size and are on the fast track to being sanctioned – but women’s wrestling is still far short of having the needed 20 NCAA colleges offering the sport to be classified as an emerging sport.
Many of the colleges that offer it are small liberal arts colleges. Some give out scholarships, but the four NCAA Division III schools that have teams don’t.
“I think even with those local schools that are strong academic schools, oh wait, they just started a team, they’re not going to have a ton of girls just knocking down the door because it’s a newer thing,” West Salem wrestling coach Mikey Baker said.
Setting the foundation
When Israel Rodriguez wrestled at Silverton High School through his senior year in 2001, one of his teammates wrestled a girl who competed for Tualatin and lost.
The coaching staff was brutal.
“You lost to a girl. How do you lose to a girl?” Rodriguez remembers the coaches yelling at his teammate.
“It was like out of this world, you know,” Rodriguez said. “How does a boy lose to a girl? I remember that. I remember them reaming the kid, almost making him quit. But she was tough. It was like, holy crap.”
That high school girl wrestling for Tualatin, Samantha Lang, went on to be an accomplished wrestler at the national level and is now an assistant coach at Warner Pacific.
Rodriguez sees first-hand the change in attitudes among those in wrestling.
His daughter, Destiny, has become a prodigy.
The 11-year-old, a fifth-grader at Keizer Elementary, practices almost exclusively against boys at the elite All-Phase Wrestling Club. She competes against boys and girls at national tournaments.
Destiny easily won the girls bracket at the prestigious Reno Worlds in April and placed second against boys.
She says that when she wrestles against girls in tournaments, it’s easier.
But she likes it better when she wrestles boys, especially the ones she beats.
“Because sometimes they cry,” Destiny said.
The model most likely to work for Oregon in getting girls wrestling at the high school level sanctioned by the OSAA has worked well nearby.
Washington added a girls division to its state tournament in 2006-07 when it had 281 girls competing in the state. That number grew to 1,123 in 2014-15.
“I think we’re years and years away from matching the numbers of boys, but I think if we can just open the door for the girls to come in and get things started, I think after a while it will start to gradually start to increase its numbers,” Central athletic director Shane Hedrick said.
Texas and Hawaii are among the six states that sanction separate state championships for girls, but those states also prohibit girls from wrestling boys.
More youth wrestling programs are accepting girls, and the growth in girls wrestling at the younger levels is a promising sign.
When middle school wrestling was added back in the Salem-Keizer public schools this year, there was significant participation from girls.
“At McKay, we hosted the Waldo-Adam Stephens dual meet and I want to say there wasa good 30 percent of their wrestlers were girls on both sides, at Waldo and at Adam Stephens,” McKay coach Troy Thomas said.
“I think it’s definitely something that in the near future you’re going to see the numbers start to skyrocket on that.”
bpoehler@StatesmanJournal.com, 503-399-6701 or Twitter.com/bpoehler