The Iowa City West High School wrestling room is adorned with state championships flags and photos of singlet-wearing athletes standing on winners podiums with medals around their necks. Though the decor celebrates the accomplishments of male athletes throughout West’s 57 years, the school’s first ever girls wrestling team is making Trojan history on the mat.
The new program brought a former West wrestler back to the wrestling room, now as a head coach. Justin Koethe wrestled for the school as a student, and was excited to help establish the girls program.
“I’ve been coaching for four or five years now … I’ve only coached one girl out of all of it. So starting this year, it’s a brand new experience for me, for sure,” Koethe said.
More than 20 young women are on the team, two of whom are City High School students (the cross-town Iowa City high school doesn’t have a girls wrestling team of its own). Koethe was surprised by the amount of interest in establishing a girl’s wrestling team, and impressed by the turnout at tryouts. The girls were attracted to the sport because it was a new experience, many said, a sentiment shared by their coach.
“I just thought it would be a good opportunity to start kind of on the ground floor and build something new,” Koethe said. “I thought it’d be exciting and fun.”
In previous years, female students interested in wrestling could join the boys team, but the gender discrepancy held some women back from going out for the sport, including senior Manal Duah.
But in May 2019, Kody Pudil, the boy’s assistant wrestling coach, sent out a survey to female students asking if they would be interested in participating in girls wrestling if it existed at West. The responses were positive enough that, in November, Pudil announced a girls wrestling team would be officially offered at West High, making it the first and only team of its kind in the Iowa City Community School District.
Pudil’s survey reflects statewide trends showing more women going out for the sport. Still, girls wrestling remains unsanctioned by the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union — girls wrestling teams in the state operate as club teams, meaning they don’t have official post-season meets, and may have more trouble securing funding.
Still, Duah now had a more welcoming space to compete in the sport.
“I just was like, ‘Why not? It’s my senior year, my last year, let me have fun,’” Duah said about her decision to sign up.
In addition to staying fit and learning something new, Duah has found wrestling cathartic. “I feel like it’s a safe way to take out anger,” she said. Duah has been learning how to defeat her opponents safely, while using self control.
Taking on a traditionally male sport has been a trend in Salima Omari’s senior year. This fall, she was one of two female linemen on the West High football team. Through the wrestling team, she continues to literally and figuratively tackle the idea of a male-only sport, but is now surrounded by girls doing the same.
“Being with guys, they were afraid to go for it. They were afraid to hit me, so then I was forced to hit them first,” Omari said. “… [Here] we’re all females. They’re like, ‘Oh, she’s the same as me, so I’m just gonna go for her.’”
Since most of the girls were brand new to wrestling, it took time to learn the moves. The wrestlers knew they would need more practices than they were receiving; their original practice schedule was after school on Tuesday and Thursday and before school on Friday.
“The girls have told me themselves that three days is not enough in order to get better and to learn wrestling,” Koethe said. “I 100 percent agree with them.”
The team added a practice after school on Mondays and before school on Wednesdays, making the sport a five-day commitment.
The team’s first meet was Dec. 16 at City High School. Of the 232 wrestlers competing, 81 were girls. At the same meet last year, only 13 girls competed.
“It’s cool to see girls are taking positions in places that they’re not usually found in and challenging what a girl supposedly can and can’t do,” said Sophia Strathearn, a City High student on the West wrestling team.
Though Strathearn has to cross town to attend daily practices at a rival high school, she said the team has been encouraging, from mastering the basics to competing at meets.
“The girls are really welcoming and the coaches are super nice. It’s been a good experience,” Strathearn said.
Laurel Haverkamp has been on and off the mat since junior high. In seventh grade, she wrestled on the boys team, but broke her hand at the beginning of eighth grade, requiring her to sit out the season. Two years ago, she returned to the sport, wrestling on a boys’ club team. She also served as the manager of the West High boy’s wrestling team.
“There’s a culture [in boy’s wrestling] that’s already been established and has grown into a very serious sport, because it is, but with the girl’s teams it’s like we’re just building the culture,” Haverkamp said.
The girls have been building that culture with joy. They know they aren’t experienced, so they don’t take themselves too seriously, and they enjoy the learning process.
“Being able to laugh at ourselves and laugh with each other is really nice … I feel like boy’s teams are very serious,” Haverkamp said.
Two of their meets were canceled due to winter weather conditions, so the team had not wrestled other schools as much as they would have liked going into their state meet a Waverly Shell Rock — a high school with a storied wrestling history, and which established its girls team in 2018 — on Jan. 17. Koethe expected the team to go against “several tough teams, with Waverly being among the toughest” at the state meet.
Despite a lack of experience, the girls still had high hopes for the season, often ending practices by yelling, “Girls state champs!”
Though the team didn’t win the state meet — the Women of Troy came in fifth — Mami Selemani placed second in her 145 weight class and Salima Omari won the heavyweight championship.
The girls ended the season strong on Jan. 29 when they won their dual meet against North Scott, 48-30.