In a place like Iowa, sports are everything. No matter who you are or where you come from, sports unify the state — unless you are rooting for the rival team. One of those sports is wrestling. One might even say that Iowa has a unique position in the wrestling community.
One school in particular — The University of Iowa — produces some of the top wrestling athletes in the world. And on Sept. 23, the addition of a Division I women’s wrestling program to its roster of NCAA sports was announced. The Hawkeyes are the first Power-5 school to do so, and are set to begin competition in the 2023-24 school year.
This historic announcement will benefit many female wrestlers as they grow up and progress in their careers. Adding women to the Hawkeyes accomplished program is a move in the right direction towards representation and success of female athletes participating in non-traditional female sports.
“Three years ago we had a hundred girls,” said former collegiate wrestler and coach from Iowa Jim Miller when talking about the number of female wrestlers in his home state. “Then we had 225, and this past year we had 357 at the state tournament, unsanctioned. It’s grown so much.”
21,124 girls wrestled at the high school level in the 2018-19 school year — a 22.9 percent increase from the year before. There is no denying that women’s wrestling is on the rise in America. As wrestling continues to grow, it has begun pursuing emerging sports status within the past year.
The history of women’s collegiate wrestling goes back to the mid 1990s, when the University of Minnesota-Morris put together the first women’s team in the 1993-94 season. A handful of schools followed in their footsteps and by the end of the season, coaches were calling for a women’s only end-of-year tournament.
That tournament however came around ten years later. With support from USA Wrestling, Missouri Valley College hosted and won the championship in 2004. Four years later, a governing body emerged; the Women’s Collegiate Wrestling Association.
Since the creation of the WCWA, there have been championship tournaments hosted every year for women’s wrestling. It has helped create a pipeline into USA Wrestling and has exposed female wrestlers, giving them the opportunity to compete in events as high as the Olympics. The WCWA is leading the campaign in petitioning for emerging sports status from the NCAA.
“Dan Gable (wrestling legend and former coach at Iowa) loves that we have made an impetus on women’s wrestling,” Miller said. “Women’s wrestling probably saved our sport from staying in the Olympics when [wrestling] almost got cancelled a few years ago.”
Today, there are 45 women’s intercollegiate wrestling programs. More and more schools are looking to add programs to a rapidly growing sport. One of the newest schools to highlight women’s wrestling is Sacred Heart University in Connecticut — this will be its inaugural season. As another young, emerging program, head coach Paulina Biega has the utmost confidence in her squad.
“I am here for my athletes, and I want to help them get better,” Biega said, who brings knowledge as both an athlete and a coach to her new team.
Biega also notes how awesome it is for the sport that Iowa will be starting its own program soon.
“Just adding a program will lead to us seeing a spike in women’s programs being added at other big schools,” Biega said.
Iowa is deemed as one of the best places for men’s collegiate wrestling in terms of success, history, facilities, and culture. Because of that, it seems like the best place to expose the sport to women who have never seen it or tried it for themselves. A whole new fanbase and appreciation has the power to grow, develop, and start the movement for a new NCAA female sanctioned sport.