As we shake hands, I can feel the pressure on me. Like a mantra I repeat: Strong grip. Stern expression. Show him you’re serious. The whistle blows, and my mind goes blank. It’s just me and my opponent. As Coach says, if my head is really in the game, I shouldn’t even be able to hear the advice he’s shouting from the sidelines. So I let my muscles do the thinking. I feel for any opening, any weakness, to snap the other player down to the ground. This is wrestling, and I’m not stronger than him. I can’t win by brute force. I have to be faster, and I have to strategize.
I win by my signature move: a roll into a pin. I have been perfecting it over the past several practices. As the referee raises my arm to signal that I have won, I finally register that my team is jumping and screaming. I jog over to my opponent’s two coaches, my hand extended. I get a handshake and a “Nice job, buddy!” from the first one.
But the second coach looks at me scathingly and just walks away. Weird: later, I see that he shakes every other wrestler’s hand.
The first time I considered wrestling (or really, rejected the sport) was in the 4th grade. I was at an arcade for my friend’s birthday party. There was a small TV, its top touching the ceiling on one wall of the dark room. Sweaty men in red and blue shorts were trapped in a cage, lights blazing down on them. One of my friends pointed to the screen.
“Hey, look! Ushoshi could do that.”
My friends knew I’d been practicing judo since the end of 2nd grade. But judo is much more elegant, more beautiful, more charming than wrestling. It actually translates to “the gentle way” (although my mother always jokes that it would be more accurate to call it “the gentle way to choke someone out” or “the gentle way to break someone’s arm”).
Mildly offended and extremely disgusted, I protested. Why were there so many bloody noses? Why were they jumping on each other? Why did they look like they hated each other? After seeing about 30 seconds of what I later learned to be “fake” wrestling, I judged the sport to be too aggressive, too brutish, too unsophisticated.
My thinking changed when I became a freshman in high school.
During the middle of 7th grade, everything had shut down due to the COVID lockdown. My instructors attempted to organize judo classes online, but these soon petered out. Even after we returned to some semblance of normalcy in 9th grade, I realized my parents were less keen on judo because it is not a school-affiliated sport.
As I found out from posters that lined the walls of the school, the wrestling team is a huge part of the school sports community. I wondered if this new sport might be able to fill judo’s gap.
My friends questioned my decision.
“You? Going like this?” one remarked, and shoved me, pointing to my small frame. She was in disbelief: why would I want to join something so brainless? I am nothing like what she expects a wrestler to be. I’m 5’3” on a good day. I’m not an aggressive person; in fact, I try to avoid conflict. I can’t stand horror movies because I’m repulsed by the idea of finding violence entertaining.
In the moment, I replied defensively. However, I worried that she had a point. I hadn’t even seen a real wrestling match yet. I had no idea what to expect.
Now might be a good time to mention that the wrestling team is officially called Stuyvesant High School’s Boys Varsity Wrestling Team. Apparently, our school isn’t allowed to establish any more sports teams, so only the boys get their names on the title. Still, the team is technically co-ed.
I was the only girl at the interest meeting. This didn’t bother me—I was often the only girl in my judo class—but it was hard not to notice. I was assured that more girls came to earlier interest meetings, but I still wondered how few girls I would have the opportunity to wrestle.
My teammates-to-be were impressed that I’d been doing judo for seven years. I appreciated the respect my past experience gained. Because of my size, I’ve found that people sometimes don’t take my dedication to sports seriously.
Here, refreshingly, the same was expected of me as of the guys. When asked, I gladly demonstrated to the team how to throw and how to fall, skills judo prioritizes more than wrestling. This is how I knew that I had a place on this team: to the captains, I was a wrestler, and not just a female one.
Wrestling as a Sport
Though my team welcomed me graciously, last year I was one of only three girls who were active on the team. These numbers are reflected on a national scale too: in the 2021-22 school year, there were over 200,000 more boys wrestling on high school teams than girls. And this was actually an improvement over years past.
Even with the sport’s increasing popularity, it is still largely unavailable to people who are not cis men. While wrestling has been a component of the Olympics since their inception, women’s wrestling only became one in 2004. At the college level, students seldom find excellent girls’ wrestling clubs (women’s wrestling is primarily a club sport at most U.S. colleges), let alone teams. There is reason for some hope though. Columbia University, which is unusual in that it is home to a strong club, is hoping to become the first Ivy League school to sponsor Division I women’s wrestling.
After tough days, I sometimes still feel like I am at an inherent disadvantage, not because I compete in the boys varsity division (I couldn’t care less about the gender of my opponent), but because wrestling rules and advice are geared towards men. Male bodies tend to have a higher threshold for building muscle mass than female bodies. Women tend to be more prone to injury because we usually have higher joint laxity, and wrestling places huge stresses on knees, shoulders, ankles, and other joints. In such a male-dominated sport, this really harms our performance potential.
This shows when, every day, I come home with a new bruise or ache. Every day, I have to take a small rest because I have hurt something new. I have a high tolerance for pain, but, frustratingly, I am more likely to get injured than the boys and even my wonderful coach doesn’t know how to help me. But I can’t think about this during a match. I can’t allow myself to feel nervous.
And so it all starts with the look: I have to appear determined and tough. I need the guy to take me seriously.
My First Wrestling Match
In my first competitive match, I instinctively went for a judo throw. But I tried it too early and it wasn’t successful, and now my opponent knew what kind of wrestler I was. During the rest of the match, which wasn’t very long, he watched out for my throws. After he won, I discovered that he also trained in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, a very aggressive and probably better-for-wrestling sport.
I wrestled him at least two more times over the course of the season. Each time, our match got longer. He always won in the end, but it became harder and harder for him to do so. Coach tells me that being a good wrestler isn’t just about winning. It’s also about improving technique and learning from your mistakes. The longer he was unable to pin me, the happier I was with my own wrestling.
As a girl, especially at the beginning, I always felt a pressure to win and to prove myself. But now I’ve come to realize that it’s not about beating my opponent as much as it is giving them a good fight. When boys lose matches, it’s not taken as an indictment against their gender. But it feels like for girls, it is. Despite our physical differences, we should fundamentally be respected and recognized when we are good athletes.
More Female Wrestlers
During my time on the wrestling team, I have seen changes in my school’s attitude towards us. From three in my freshman year, a year later we now have seven active girls on the team.
A large part of this change is due to the active efforts of my coach, who grew up thinking women should never wrestle. But when he finally saw women wrestling, he realized how wrong he was, and how important it was to encourage everyone who is interested in the sport. In fact, he brings his granddaughters to our practice sessions sometimes, in hopes that they, too, will someday wrestle.
People at my school have also noticed that the girls earn just as many medals as the boys do. Funnily enough, I am the 2022 third-ranked “boy” in Manhattan.
With time, I was even recognized by people in the broader wrestling community. At the beginning of wrestling season in sophomore year, my team went to the campus of my Brazilian Jiu Jitsu-practicing opponent to record our heights and weights. Suddenly, the manager of my team ran over to me excitedly.
“Ushoshi, they’re talking about you! Their coaches know your name!”
Stunned, I went over. I learned that they remembered that my team has a “really tough 110 [pound wrestler]. I think her name was Ushoshi? Is she still on the team?” They are among a growing number of coaches who recognize how important it is to encourage gender-inclusive wrestling.
While the changes I’ve noticed in the wrestling community seem monumental, there’s still obviously a lot of work to be done.
To encourage more girls to start wrestling, the other two girls from the team last year (one of whom is the current co-captain of the co-ed team) and I just co-founded our school’s first Girls Wrestling Club, which accepts all students who identify as female and trans folks regardless of experience. While we are still working out some of the logistics, we have dozens of girls interested in the team. We aim to provide students with a comfortable and non-judgemental place to learn how to wrestle so that they can feel confident in wrestling anyone.
Any sport has the ability to change to be more inclusive and welcoming, and just allowing women to participate in a “men’s” sport is not enough. Girls may be allowed to wrestle on high school boys’ teams but it is yet to be a sport for women, or, really, for anyone but men.
I hope that someday soon no one will have to worry about their gender getting in the way of playing a sport. In that world, all coaches will be able to shake a player’s hand, no matter who has beaten them.
Ushoshi Das is a a rising junior at Stuyvesant High School in New York City. Her interests include reading, writing, US history, wrestling, and judo. Other than Youth Communication Magazine, she has published articles in the Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, and the Stuyvesant Spectator.