Almost as soon as it launched in the United States in the early 90s, mixed martial arts has been a home for wrestlers after their careers on the mat were over. From Coleman to Cormier, Severn to Couture, and Henderson to Hendricks, those who excelled in the world of wrestling, whether on the national or international level, have found their skill sets to fit perfectly in the Octagon.
And over the last couple years, with the UFC bringing women into the fold, the list of MMA standouts with wrestling backgrounds has grown, led by Olympic Silver medalist Sara McMann and former mat specialists Carla Esparza, Cat Zingano and Miesha Tate. In other words, it’s the perfect time to shine a light on the ladies of the sport, and USA Wrestling is doing just that with Women’s Wrestling Week, which runs from March 2 through March 8, culminating with the Women’s World Cup championship in St. Petersburg, Russia on Sunday.
“It’s a chance to bring young girls into wrestling rooms and events to try out the sport,” Gary Abbott, Director of Communications and Special Projects for USA Wrestling, said. “It’s the first time for us, and I anticipate it’s something we’re going to do a lot in the future. I don’t think you can ever have too much attention on a growing and developing sport. It’s exciting for us.”
According to USA Wrestling, “any female athlete who is not a member of USA Wrestling is invited to come out and try the sport at a chartered club practice. USA Wrestling will provide a complimentary membership for March 2-7, the time covered by Women's Wrestling Week.”
The initiative aims to not just open up the sport to a new generation of athletes, but to also show that what some may think about women’s wrestling isn’t necessarily accurate. It’s a slow process, but it is progressing.
“Right now we’re still in the phase that people who appreciate wrestling are starting to see amazing technique from people like Helen Maroulis or the awesome double leg that one of our other world team members have or the inside trips that some of our lighter weights have, and they’re appreciating that technique,” Adeline Gray, a two-time world champion and a favorite for Gold in the 2016 Olympics, said. “We’re seeing that ten-fold every single year from younger girls coming up who are pushing the current girls to new heights and that’s such a cool thing to have.”
“I just hope that women’s wrestling gets more attention,” Maroulis, a 2012 Silver medalist in the World Championships, added. “People have to see what it’s all about, so one of the things we’re doing with Women’s Wrestling Week is not just raise awareness but also give women the opportunity to try it out. So we’re encouraging girls and guys to just bring a female, whether they’re wrestlers or not, to a wrestling practice or tournament. Wrestling’s a great sport, and everything that it can teach a boy, it can teach a girl. It’s character-building and it would be great for people to experience that for themselves.”
When Sara McMann heard about Women’s Wrestling Week, she couldn’t have been happier, mainly because it was something that wasn’t there for her when she was coming up the ranks.
“I grew up with the generation before me that had to raise money to go to world championships,” she said. “They pretty much had to pay their own way, buy their own uniforms and do everything themselves if they wanted to go. Now, USA Wrestling is backing it very strongly, really investing in the developmental program, and the opportunities that the girls have now to be able to actually and financially live off of their sport is such a tremendous and wonderful thing. And I don’t take it for granted because there are still some sports that the men and women don’t receive that kind of support from their national governing body.”
McMann, currently one of the top contenders in the UFC’s women’s bantamweight division, is a pioneer in women’s wrestling, though you wouldn’t hear that coming out of her mouth. Like most wrestlers, she lets her work do the talking, and what a tale that work tells. It’s one capped off by an Olympic Silver medal in the 2004 Olympics. In winning the Silver in Athens, McMann became the first American woman to do so, an accomplishment coming nearly ten years after the first time she set foot on the mat. Ask her about currently being someone her fellow wrestlers look up to, and she humbly deflects such praise.
“I didn’t even think past high school when I first started,” she admits. “Every year I basically just set a goal and then I reached that goal and reset my goal. That’s how I developed, and it was because I really didn’t have anything at that time to look up to and say ‘oh, I want to be an Olympic champion.’ Everything developed really slow for me, and I just didn’t know how far my talents and drive were going to take me. So I never thought that I would become an Olympic Silver medalist until it was a couple years before it happened. And I didn’t really think about the impact on the girls that were coming up; I was just very driven and focused toward my own goals.”
McMann continued to wrestle after the 2004 Games before eventually migrating to MMA. Most would say that while MMA training is a grind in its own right, but at the same time, most wrestlers believe that this is a cakewalk compared to what they used to go through in the room, and it’s that toughness that has made them so good in their adopted sport. And they can appreciate those rough days now.
“It’s almost in the same way as climbing Mount Everest,” McMann said. “When those guys have less oxygen or are worrying about frostbite in the most harsh conditions in the world, it’s not fun then. But the pride you have in yourself, for not only surviving practices but attacking them, you meet other wrestlers and you know what they sacrificed and what they’ve gone though, and you have a different kind of respect immediately for people who wrestle.”
Wrestlers also have some great stories, and McMann is no exception.
“Sometimes it’s almost like a badge of honor, how hard you had to struggle in order to gain the same things that other people had in wrestling,” McMann said. “If you came through and just happened to be in a great area with great coaches and everything was pretty much laid out for you, you didn’t go through the same kind of struggles. We had to go on trips to more third world countries rather than some of the nicer ones. The freestyle guys get to stay in five-star hotels and I stayed in a hotel literally called The Dog House by the people who lived there. (Laughs) And we ate food and they didn’t even tell us what kind of meat we were eating. But those were some of the best stories, because the more you could persevere for your goals through more hardships, the more it showed how much you wanted it. It weeded out the people who couldn’t hack it and it kept the most determined people, the ones who loved it the most.”
Sounds like being a wrestler was pretty cool.
“My sport is so awesome that when people say ‘oh, are you a wrestler,’ it’s a compliment. It’s instantly a different level of respect for that person.”
If you don’t know who Adeline Gray is yet, don’t worry, by the time the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro roll around, she will likely be everywhere you look. The 24-year-old from Colorado is one of the baddest women on the planet at the moment, even if she hasn’t said that a move to the mixed martial arts world is on the agenda yet.
“I have some goals set in front of me, and they’re some pretty tough goals, so at the moment I am just considering accomplishing what I have set in front of me,” she said. “I’m not writing it off one hundred percent, but I’m not biting at the bit to get out of wrestling to go into MMA. It’s not in my direct line of sight. I have an Olympic Gold medal to win right now.”
After two world championship wins, that Gold medal seems ripe for the taking, and if she does stand on the podium and hear the National Anthem play, there will be plenty of options for Gray in whatever she chooses to do. That may not have been the case for female wrestlers of the past, and at one point Gray didn’t even know if it would be for her.
Then she met Iris Smith, the 2005 World Champion.
“She walked into my tournament to sign autographs, and she signed my headgear,” Gray recalls. “I remember thinking ‘she’s beautiful and strong, and she competes at an elite level of a sport that’s not traditional, just like I do.’ It was a life-changing experience for me to step in and see this powerful, beautiful female who gets to dedicate her life to competing and to excelling at a sport, yet she’s still feminine and gets to be treated as an athlete when she steps on the mat and a female when she steps off. That was a very important lesson for me to understand, that I could do both, that I could be a female in this world and still kick butt on the mat and still learn something in a tough sport that’s not overly feminine. I appreciated that moment and I still appreciate it when I see her.”
It is an important lesson for young ladies across the nation during Women’s Wrestling Week, along with the reality that for whatever hardship they’ve gone through, there is an accomplished star who has gone through the same thing themselves.
“I got to talk to a young girl at a state tournament in Colorado, and she said ‘I just don’t have that much support from my coach,’” Gray recalls. “And I told her that I went through that too in high school, and it was hard to overcome that. She said ‘I thought that I was the only one.’ Having the ability to know that other people went through struggles really helps to let you know that you can make it through it too.”
Adeline Gray made it. She still has that autographed headgear as well, keeping the signature intact with a coat of clear nail polish.
“That thing is going to be there for the rest of my life,” she said.
But does she still wear it?
“I stopped wearing the headgear a few years ago when we were in the same weight class and I had to beat her out for the World team.”
There’s no bad blood though, with Gray pointing out that she made it very clear to Smith the impact she had on her.
“I told her ‘You changed my life,’” she said.
Talking to Maryland native Helen Maroulis, it’s hard to imagine the 23-year-old being shy or tentative about doing anything. In fact, when asked about making the move to mixed martial arts after her wrestling career is over, she doesn’t hesitate in her response.
“Oh yeah, I’m open to it,” she said. “A couple of us started going to fights, and we’ve seen (Ronda) Rousey and Sara McMann fights, and I think we’re all getting the itch.”
She laughs, charismatic and instantly likable, all the hallmarks of someone people will hearing about pretty soon as she travels on the Road to Rio. But she wasn’t always so comfortable in the spotlight.
“When I started playing sports when I was a kid, I was afraid of heights so I had to quit diving,” Maroulis said. “I was afraid of people watching me, and I was really shy, so I quit ballet. Then my mom put me in wrestling and it was the sport for me. It changed me as a person, it’s given me a lot of confidence, and it’s taught me about hard work, dedication, and sacrifice. It’s also given me a lot of opportunities to get a scholarship, travel the world, and be an ambassador in campaigns for women’s wrestling. These are things I never would have imagined.”
One of eight ambassadors chosen for United World Wrestling’s Super 8 campaign, Maroulis not only has the mat skill, but the personality to make wrestling something a young person would want to take a stab at. And these days, it’s a lot easier for a girl to have that opportunity than it used to.
“The growth has been consistent since the 1990s,” Abbott said. “The first women’s world championship was in 1987 and we competed in 1989. And if you track the high school growth of women’s wrestling, since 1990 it has grown every year, and in some years, it’s the largest growth of any sport in the country for girls on a percentage basis, and it’s continuing to do that. The numbers track that and our membership sets records every year as far as youth wrestlers that join USA Wrestling. And you see changes in the fact that the number of states that offer high school girls’ state championships through their official high school program has grown. There are also over 20 varsity teams on the college level for women’s wrestling and they’ve been competing for a dozen years in a national college tournament.”
Yet when Maroulis and most of her peers were coming up, things weren’t so rosy.
“When I started, I only wrestled guys, and back then everyone was trying to get you to quit and go home,” she said. “People think that girls can’t wrestle because they’re not tough enough, but for any of us to make it this far with what we went through is definitely not what a boy experiences. Every girl has her fair share of stories growing up and getting some kind of backlash.”
Maroulis wasn’t about to be chased away though, and that tenacity is a trait all wrestlers – male and female – share, so when the sport was threatened with removal from the Olympics, they bonded together to get it put back in. And succeeded.
“True to the wrestling community, it was do or die for everyone,” she said. “It wasn’t ‘what if we don’t’; it was ‘what do we have to do to get it back in right now? Let’s do it.’”
If that’s not an inspiring lesson, what is? But the greatest endorsement for the sport comes in one sentence from Maroulis, one of its brightest stars, who simply says, “Wrestling has changed my life tremendously.”
What could be better than that for any young person?