Andrea Mayeux, USA TODAY College Contributing Writer
CAMPBELLSVILLE, Ky. – All 17-year-old Kait Fitzpatrick wants to do is compete. For her, that means wrestling.
The high school senior from Yardley, Penn. sticks to a rigorous training schedule, working out four-to-five hours a day, eating six protein-packed meals and missing out on time with friends.
Next year, though, she’ll be wrestling for Campbellsville University.
Fitzpatrick joined five clubs to catch up to her competitors, mainly because she started later than many kids from wrestling families. She travels to New York to watch some of the world’s best women wrestlers compete.
But her path to college wrestling was far from easy.
“A lot of coaches kind of pushed me away from clubs and teams despite my desire to be there and to work hard,” said Fitzpatrick. She says there is a mentality that girls don’t belong.
Many young American girls have been in Kait’s (wrestling) shoes, even as the number of girls competing in high school has more than doubled over the last 10 years and as many as 23 colleges have women’s wresting programs.
But athletes, coaches and parents say opportunities for young girls to break into the sport are hard to come by.
A friend dared Fitzpatrick to join her middle school team. At the time she was active in football, hockey and other “boys’ sports.”
“Someone said, ‘You can’t wrestle. That’s the ultimate sport.’” Fitzpatrick responded to the challenge by making the middle school squad.
Girls who discover the sport at an early age may not find an outlet until junior high or high school. Only four states have sanctioned women’s wrestling at the high school level, indicating just how difficult it is to find all-girls teams.
“At that point they are training with athletes who have been competing for ten years longer,” said Michele Fitzpatrick, Kait’s mother. She says her job as a wrestling mom is to “remove barriers, because there are quite a few.”
Girls often face adversity in what has traditionally been seen as a boys’ sport at the amateur level. Critics question the competitiveness of the women’s sport, or argue that girls can’t hold their own against boys on the mat.
Coaches would rather coach boys. Parents don’t want their son wrestling against a girl, because of the body-to-body contact. Religion sensibilities may be a factor as well.
Amanda Leve, a 16-year-old from Philadelphia, is fighting a decision to keep her off the Archbishop Ryan High School boys wrestling team, collecting nearly 16,000 signatures in an online petition.
The archdiocese decided to uphold a rule that that wrestling is a “full contact sport open to boys only,” according to a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. “The rule is a reflection of our Catholic tradition that gender differences are important and play a key role in the development of dignified, mature Christian identity.”
“I’m not there to find a boyfriend,” Leve said.
Her goal is to compete in mixed martial arts and become an ultimate fighter. She trains in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai — or stand-up boxing — and said adding wrestling to her resume will help.
Women’s bouts, added to professional Ultimate Fighting Championship this year, are more entertaining than men’s bouts, Leve said, because the women “have more to prove” and are more aggressive.
Fitzpatrick’s goal is to be an Olympian. Her decision to wrestle at Campbellsville, under the Women’s College Wrestling Association, is largely because college is the next step if you don’t have “have a million titles, or world championships” or haven’t made a world team.
Campbellsville added a women’s program a year ago. Some within the wrestling community say that schools adding men’s and women’s programs helps the sport rebound from tough times — including a near ouster from the Olympic Games.
Over the past five years the sport has seen close to a 10% drop in overall U.S. participation, according to a report by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.
The total number of college wrestling programs in the U.S. has fallen partially due to Title IX regulations, a cost cutting measure by schools that want to add other sports for women.
However, USA Wrestling contends women’s wrestling is the fastest growing sport, percentage wise, at the high school level.
In September, wrestling avoided elimination from the 2020 and 2024 Olympic Games. The International Olympic Committee voted to keep the sport over baseball, softball and squash.
“If it wasn’t for women’s wrestling, we wouldn’t be an Olympic sport,” said Terry Steiner, coach of the women’s national team. The IOC pointed specifically to the sport’s inclusion of women in its decision.
At Campbellsville, wrestling provided an easy way to offer more athletic opportunities for women.
“We have a men’s wrestling program,” said Campbellsville University Athletic Directory Rusty Hollingsworth. “We already have the facility. It wasn’t something that was going to tax us for a new facility. So it was a natural fit for us.”
The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics will add its fifteenth program next year at Warner Pacific College in Oregon.That makes women’s wrestling an NAIA recognized sport.
The NAIA is a smaller athletic organization than the National Collegiate Athletic Association, made up of smaller colleges and universities.
Hollingsworth predicts an explosion of women’s collegiate programs in the next five years.
“We wanted to be on the forefront of that,” he said.
According to Steiner, that can’t happen until there is more acceptance. “We’re holding it back… just people in the sport. To say that women don’t belong on a mat, I have a problem with that.”
Fitzpatrick chose Campbellsville because of the supportive coaching staff.
“I just look for acceptance. That a coach won’t treat me differently, in a good way or a bad way,” she said. “I just want to be accepted by my partners and coaches.”