In a place like Iowa, sport is everything. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, sport is what unifies the state, unless you support the rival team. One of these sports is wrestling. You could even say that Iowa has a unique position in the wrestling community.
One school in particular, the University of Iowa, produces some of the best wrestling athletes in the world. And on September 23, the school announced the addition of a Division I women’s wrestling program, making the Hawkeyes the first Power 5 school to do so. The team will begin the competition in the 2023-24 season.
This historic announcement will benefit many girls and young women as they advance in their wrestling careers. The addition of women to the accomplished Hawkeyes program is a step in the right direction towards the representation and success of female athletes participating in non-traditional female sports.
“Three years ago we had 100 daughters,” said former wrestler and varsity coach Jim Miller of the number of wrestlers in his home state of Iowa. “Then we had 225, and last year we had 357 in the state tournament, unsanctioned. He has grown so much.
In the 2018-19 school year, 21,124 girls across the United States struggled in high school, an increase of 22.9% from the previous year. As women’s wrestling continues to grow, efforts have been made recently to give it an emerging sport status.
The history of women’s collegiate wrestling dates back to the mid-1990s, when the University of Minnesota-Morris formed the first women’s team in the 1993-94 season. A handful of schools followed in their footsteps and at the end of the season coaches were calling for a single end-of-year women’s tournament.
This tournament did not come for another decade, however. With the support of 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 inception of WCWA, championship tournaments have been held annually for women’s wrestling. This helped create a pipeline to USA Wrestling and exposed female wrestlers, giving them the opportunity to compete in events as high as the Olympics. WCWA is leading the campaign in seeking emerging sport status from the NCAA.
“Dan Gable [former Iowa coach] love that we gave a boost to women’s wrestling, ”Miller said. “Women’s wrestling probably prevented our sport from staying at the Olympics when [wrestling] almost got canceled a few years ago.
Today, there are 45 women’s interuniversity wrestling programs. More and more schools are looking to add programs to a growing sport. One of the most recent schools to showcase women’s wrestling is the University of the Sacred Heart in Connecticut – this will be its inaugural season. As another young emerging program, head coach Paulina Biega has the utmost confidence in her team.
“I’m here for my athletes and I want to help them improve,” says Biega, who brings her knowledge as an athlete and coach to her new team.
Biega also notes how great it is for the sport that Iowa is launching their own program soon.
“Just adding a program will cause us to see an increase in added women’s programs in other great schools,” Biega said.
Iowa is considered one of the best places for men’s college wrestling in terms of success, history, facilities, and culture. For this reason, it seems like the best place to expose the sport to women who have never seen or tried it themselves. Now, a whole new fan base and appreciation has the power to grow, develop and start the movement for a new NCAA sanctioned women’s sport.
Mackenzie Meaney is a contributor for GoodSport, a media company dedicated to increasing the visibility of women and girls in sport.