Jessica Bennett, 15, who competes at 103 pounds for the Montville High School Indians, waiting on the bench to take the mat at a recent match.
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By TAMAR LEWIN
Published: February 17, 2007
UNCASVILLE, Conn. — The takedown came after all of 12 seconds.
Hitting the Mat
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C. M. Glover for The New York Times
Jessica Bennett, center rear, listening to prematch instructions.
Jessica Bennett, Montville High School’s 103-pound wrestler, waited until Rich Wood went down to try to grab her leg, then launched herself onto his back, and got him down to his knees. After a brief stalemate later in the match, Jessica, 15, lifted him off the ground and took him back to the mat, for more points.
At that, several of Rich’s teammates, from St. Bernard High School here, looked down at their feet. There is still some pain in watching a teammate being beaten by a girl — even a girl like Jessica, who has won 23 of her 35 matches this season.
Wrestling may be the ultimate contact sport, and it can be a startling sight, teenage boys grabbing girls’ thighs, girls straddling boys, boys riding girls’ backs and trying to flip them onto their backs. For the most part, girls who want to wrestle — and they are slowly moving into the mainstream — must practice with, and compete against, boys.
Nationwide, about 5,000 high school girls wrestled last year, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, nearly five times as many as a decade earlier. Those numbers are no doubt low, since many states failed to report girls’ wrestling participation, but whatever the full count, it is dwarfed by the quarter-million boys who wrestle.
Now that women’s wrestling is an Olympic sport, and, on some campuses, a college sport, girls’ wrestling is poised to take off. There is a Catch-22: Without many girls, there can’t be girls’ teams, and without girls’ teams, wrestling can’t attract all that many girls. The legal status of coed wrestling is not entirely clear, but in a few scattered cases, courts have ruled that if there is no girls’ team for them, they should be able to join boys’ teams.
In Texas and Hawaii, and in some California schools, girls have their own teams. Girls’ invitational tournaments, where girls compete individually, are becoming more common. Just this month, for the first time, the New York Mayor’s Cup competition had a girls’ division, albeit with only nine participants.
“It would be nice if there were girls’ teams,” said Eleanor Lewis, a sophomore at Horace Mann, a private school in New York City, who wrestled two boys on the first day of the Mayor’s Cup and two girls the second. “When you wrestle a girl, you’re more equally matched, and feel like you’re respected,” she said.
Roger Shaw, women’s director for USA Wrestling Connecticut, said the spread of girls’ teams would help wrestling’s popularity.
“I believe we’ll go on at the low level we’re at if women don’t get their own teams,” Mr. Shaw said.
While he is all for girls wrestling — his daughter, Stefenie, started wrestling at 8 and now, at 20, is an Olympic hopeful — Mr. Shaw said that for boys, coed wrestling can be disconcerting. “A boy who goes out on the mat against a girl doesn’t win,” he said. “If he beats her, he was supposed to, and if he doesn’t, he’s dead meat.”
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On the other side, mothers of girl wrestlers say they worry about the cauliflower ears, broken noses and concussions. One thing that coaches, parents and wrestlers — both boys and girls — agree on is that sex is the last thing on wrestlers’ minds as they pull and push and turn their partners, same sex or opposite.
“They’re so pumped up with adrenaline when they’re out there on the mat, they’re not thinking of anything but wrestling and winning,” said Gary Wilcox, Jessica Bennett’s coach.
Occasionally, boys choose to forfeit rather than wrestle a girl, as happened at a Dobbs Ferry High School exhibition match this season, leaving Sophia Veiras, a sophomore, with no one to fight.
“It’s always a little intimidating for the boys at first,” said Jamie Block, the coach at the school, in Westchester. “They’re raised not to do this to a girl. And the thing about Sophia is, she’s very good. If you don’t really fight, she’ll pummel you. The girls who come out for wrestling now, they go to wrestling camps in the summer. They’re serious.”
Girls’ wrestling is not easy. The conditioning is grueling and intense, more so than for other sports. Since boys their age are usually stronger, only a few girls ever make varsity, let alone get to a state championship. And there is often parental resistance.
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C. M. Glover for The New York Times
Ms. Bennett winning her match for Montville High.
Hitting the Mat
“I told her, it’s all boys, you’re going to get hurt,” said Roseanna Di Benedetto, whose daughter, Lucy, a tiny 15-year-old at Francis Lewis High School in Queens, is determined to wrestle. “But Lucy’s always loved a challenge.”
Even her coach, Josue Herrera, has his doubts about coed wrestling. “I think it’s better if it’s girl and girl,” he said. “If boys and girls wrestle together, it’s physically harder for the girl, but mentally harder for the boy.”
Lucy’s school is still considering how to treat her. She has been training with the boys. Every afternoon, she flops to the floor, does her pushups, runs alongside them and goes through the neck stretches, crab walks and army crawls. Still, she has not been allowed to wrestle with the boys.
Her school’s athletic director, Arnie Rosenbaum, will not let her do that unless she can pass a state test: among other things, she must run a mile and a half in 11 minutes and do a 7-foot standing long jump, which may not be possible for this 4-foot-11 ninth grader.
Mr. Rosenbaum said he was following state guidelines intended to ensure that girls who join boys’ teams are solid athletes. “It’s not up to me,” he said. “I’m just following the guidelines.” Other officials say Mr. Rosenbaum is going beyond state requirements.
According to the State Education Department, the guidelines for mixed competition require schools to consider the girl’s medical history and physical abilities but do not require that they pass the test, which is intended for younger athletes who want to compete alongside older ones.
At other schools in New York where girls wrestle with boys, coaches say there has not been a problem.
“We’ve had at least one girl on our team since we started the program four years ago,” said Scott DeBellis, at Herbert H. Lehman High School in the Bronx, which has two girls wrestling this year.
Another girl, he said, dropped away because her mother wanted her out.
Even the mother of Jessica Bennett, the Montville High wrestler, had her doubts.
“When she was little, I told Jess that it’s a little bit of a man’s world, but you should never let anyone say you can’t do something because you’re a girl,” Kim Bennett said. “When she wanted to wrestle, I was very skeptical. But she reminded me of what I’d said, and told me that the first time she was hearing she shouldn’t do something because she’s a girl, she was getting it from me. And she was right.”
Her coach, Mr. Wilcox, a former marine, also wondered how the boys would behave when Jessica first appeared at practice. “I told them, if anybody does or says anything, they’ll pay me,” he said. “So there was fear.”
But Jessica and her teammates say coed wrestling seems perfectly natural. In fact, Jessica says, the boys who have known her since she followed her brother into a local youth wrestling program in fourth grade “kind of watch out for me.”
Nick Perry, a senior who often wrestles Jessica at practice, said he never thought about her being a girl.
“I grew up wrestling with Jessica, in the youth program, so it’s just how it is,” he said. “She’s good. She’s the one on the team who makes the most kids cry.”
Mr. Wilcox said Jessica was equally serious academically and athletically: she is at the top of her class and places among the fastest runners in the state. Last summer, she went to wrestling camp, where she was the only girl.
Jessica, a soft-spoken girl who braids and pins up her hair before each match, says wrestling has helped build her confidence, challenging both her body and her mind.
With the hairnet, the dark T-shirt under her singlet, and the headgear over her ears, there is something oddly demure about Jessica, even as she is on all fours with a boy riding her back. The onlookers yell, “Lock in that leg” and “Keep pushing,” and her mother yells, “Come on, Jess, upsy-daisy.”
When she gets on top, turns him and nearly pins him, the crowd explodes, stomping the bleachers. Her team cheers wildly. His team goes silent.