The gym is warm and feels almost like a sauna on a chilly February day.
Inside, two teenage girls crouch down on the padded mats that cover nearly every inch of the floor. They assume the neutral position, their bodies facing each other as they raise their arms ahead of the fight.
They smile at each other.
Then, in a flash, their maroon Franklin High School T-shirts and black Asics gym shoes become indistinguishable as they artfully tumble across the mats.
Isabella Campbell wraps her left arm around the neck of Annalise Dodson, bringing her to mat and pinning her with a thud. Annalise rolls out from the pin and begins to spar again, and in a matter of minutes, she loses her hair tie, her long curls moving wildly along with her. She realizes her nose is bleeding from the fight.
“I’m OK!” she says.
It’s not obvious from the girls’ continuous technical motions that they’re still relatively new to the sport of wrestling.
Isabella and Annalise, both sophomores, began wrestling in November with no prior experience. They’re the first girls to wrestle for Franklin High School, which boasts a historically successful all-boys wrestling program. The girls’ inaugural season wrapped up earlier this month.
“Where they started and where they’ve ended up this year is just unbelievable,” their coach, Tucker Cathey, said. “They went into their first match not knowing what to do, not knowing what to expect, and they came pretty close to qualifying for state in their first four or three months of being in the sport.”
Girls wrestling has taken off in Tennessee, and according to Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association, 366 girls from 92 schools with female wrestlers. Montgomery County has been a powerhouse in the sport, boasting multiple teams that have contended for state titles.
There are now five high school girls wrestling teams in Williamson County: Fairview, Franklin, Independence, Page and Summit.
“It has grown in the five years that I have been district athletic director here in WCS,” Jeremy Qualls said. “I hope to see every team have female representation in the coming years in a sport that has traditionally been fielded by the majority of male athletes.”
Girls find a place on the mats
When Isabella and Annalise showed up for the first day of wrestling practice, they didn’t know each other — or if anyone else — would be there.
They had contacted Cathey after hearing a morning announcement on how the school was looking to launch a girls program.
“What I tried to sell them on is that you’re going to make history as the first girl team competitors, so whatever you do, you’re going to set the standard for the next group of girls,” he said.
Isabella’s dad, Russ Campbell, wrestled at Franklin, and encouraged her to take on the sport.
Annalise, admittedly the feistier of the two, came to the team in hopes of finally sparring with someone.
“There’s always been a little spark inside my heart that I want to do some type of combat sport,” she said. “When I heard that they were going to start a girls wrestling team, I thought, ‘hot dog!’ I joined the team, and I met Bella. I was so surprised and happy there was another girl that wanted to join.”
Cathey, who coaches football at Franklin, had to learn how to coach girls who are less than half his size. This is his first year as part of the school’s wrestling coaching staff.
“With boys you just kind of grab them and show them what to do,” he said.
He brought in other coaches to help, along with his 30-deep boys team, who regularly showed the girls where to place their hands during spars.
“We all kind of coach each other,” Cathey said.
Every day after school, the girls spent two hours learning hand fighting, take downs, escapes, break downs and pins.
“It’s like dancing, kind of, and I have two left feet,” Annalise, 16, said.
Some of the technical skills came easier to 15-year-old Isabella, who had studied Brazilian jiu-jitsu for six years, but both girls quickly picked up the sport.
“I was just constantly asking questions about everything technique-wise and points and how refs count different techniques,” Isabella said. “Once you wrap your mind around all of that, then it’s much easier to fully understand wrestling.”
Ivy Dodson, Annalise’s mom, was wowed by her daughter’s transformation throughout the season.
“All I knew was WWF back in the day with Hulk Hogan. I did not realize all the skills and moves and techniques that wrestling uses. I couldn’t believe that she used those and pinned someone so quickly,” Ivy Dodson said.
In less than two weeks, the girls found themselves at their first dual, which is when a school faces off against another school.
“I had butterflies the whole entire time,” Isabella said. “I was so nervous.”
Annalise hit the mats first.
“Even though I was in my own head and freaking out, I could tell the girl I was going up against was all scared too,” she said. “I was just like, ‘I have to be the alpha.’
“I bobbed her a little, knocked her over somehow and flipped her over,” she continued, becoming excited. “She struggled and was pinned and that was the first one! I was super nervous, but it gave me a glimpse of what to do and what was yet to come.”
Next up, Isabella was hungry for another win for her team.
“I ended up pinning the girl, and that was a huge milestone in this,” Isabella said, and Annalise inserted, “In this roller coaster we call the wrestling system.”
Isabella finished the season with a 9-10 record. Annalise finished 10-12.
‘Yin and yang’ teammates
The girls’ personalities organically complement one another on and off the mat. They’ve bonded over practices, trips to tournaments and Sonic milkshakes in between.
“We’ve become good friends, which is crazy because I hadn’t talked to (Isabella) ever before the season started,” Annalise said.
Isabella is quieter, a sweet spirit who pauses before she speaks. As a wrestler, she’s laser-focused on technique.
Annalise wears her passion on her sleeve and grows excited when she talks about the sport. What you see is what you get with her.
“Bella is the technical one, and I’m the crazy one,” Annalise said.
She pumps Isabella up, and Isabella helps her slow down and remember the sport’s requirements.
“We’re like yin and yang,” Annalise said. “I’ll be getting all aggressive, and I’ll get the whole move wrong because I’m going (into) crazy mode. Bella will be like, ‘Calm down for a second, take it slow.'”
Cathey recalled how at one event, Annalise hadn’t won a match yet and was upset. Isabella went over film with her, encouraging her and talking her through the steps.
“After they talked she went out and won, and they hugged,” he said. “It was the first time they had placed in a tournament, so it was really special to be a part of it.”
Looking to launch a legacy
Cathey and the girls want the team to expand next season.
Maybe the stereotype of wrestling being a “boys sport” keeps girls away, Annalise said. She hopes their appearances at tournaments help to change that, and her mom said that she has already inspired her two younger sisters to learn the sport.
Isabella hopes this is just the beginning for the school’s girls wrestling team.
“I feel like if I come back in six or seven years, and we can come to practice and there are six or seven girls practicing and going hardcore with the guys, I’d just be so proud that we were able to start that.”
Annalise smiled and said, “Oh my gosh, that’d be beautiful.”
Reach Amelia Ferrell Knisely at firstname.lastname@example.org, 615-210-8286 or follow @ameliaknisely on Twitter.