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This story is part of the Des Moines Register’s People to Watch in 2020 series. The stories highlight Iowans we expect great things from in the coming year.
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Practice is wrapping up in the Iowa City West wrestling room, and one wrestler is running sprints. Down and back, about 60-some yards round trip, huffing and puffing all the way, using every last ounce of energy at the end of a two-hour workout.
"You’re fine," a teammate encourages. "Let’s go. You’ve got this."
It’s a Monday in early December, and Nate Moore watches on a bench just inside the room’s entrance. The wrestler’s name is Emma Barker, a sophomore at West. Once finished, she stretches and motions to a nearby friend.
"I want to win state," Barker says. "I’m going to be a girls’ state wrestling champion."
The moment makes Moore smile.
"That’s awesome," he says.
Count West among the many Iowa schools that are joining the ever-growing girls’ wrestling movement. The sport is among the nation’s fastest-growing at the high school level, and the support for it to be officially recognized in Iowa continues to build.
Currently, West has 29 girls registered and eligible to wrestle this season, according to Trackwrestling, the most by a single school in Iowa. Fifteen Iowa schools have 10 or more girls out this season.
"Iowa City is the freakin’ wrestling capital in the world," said Moore, West's second-year head coach and one of the Register's 15 People to Watch in 2020. "We live in a community where a lot of people support wrestling. Why not give that opportunity to girls, too?"
Statewide, 554 Iowa girls representing 147 schools are registered and eligible to compete for the 2019-20 season, according to Track. More are expected to join as the season continues. Last year, 188 competed. Five years ago, just 55 did, according to statistics compiled by the National Federation of State High School Associations.
The spike in numbers has come largely thanks to established tournaments adding girls' divisions, allowing girls to wrestle other girls, not boys. As many as 16 tournaments did so last season. The Iowa Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association also put on a state championship at Waverly-Shell Rock high school in January.
Even more, five Iowa colleges now offer women's wrestling: Waldorf, Grand View, Iowa Wesleyan, William Penn and Indian Hills CC. Waldorf was the first, beginning in 2010. Grand View's program was announced in January and is navigating its inaugural season. Indian Hills, Iowa Wesleyan and William Penn will begin in the 2020-21 season.
"Right now, we're opening up so much to girls," said Charlotte Bailey, the women’s director for Iowa USA Wrestling, "and I really give a lot of credit to the coaches and schools that have picked it up, added coaches and uniforms and extra practice times.
"We’re saying, ‘It’s OK to never wrestle a boy. It’s now officially OK to go out for the team, to compete only against girls, if that’s what you choose.’ It’s really fantastic progress we’ve made over the last few years."
Iowa's growth is part of a national trend. According to the national federation, 21,124 girls wrestled nationwide last year, a huge uptick from the 6,025 that competed in 2008-09.
Iowa's numbers this season would have been the eighth-most by a single state nationally last year (out of the 42 that reported to the federation). California led with 6,014, then Texas with 4,421, Washington with 1,864, and Missouri, which added girls’ wrestling in 2018, with 956.
Twenty states have sanctioned girls’ wrestling as an official sport, and 14 of them have joined in the past two years. Iowa is not one of them. It is the only state to have two governing bodies for high school sports, and the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union, which oversees girls’ sports, wants bigger numbers and greater support before adding it.
Iowa schools have responded. More schools, like West, have added girls' teams, and more tournaments have added girls' divisions. West's girls' team competed at City High on Dec. 16, where 81 girls competed (to compare: 87 competed at the Iowa Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association state tournament. Last year, only 13 competed in City High's girls' tournament.
Another association-sponsored state tournament is set for Jan. 24-25 at Waverly-Shell Rock, too, and those involved are exploring the idea of moving it to accommodate the increase in numbers.
The 554 Iowa girls registered this year has surprised even some advocates.
"I was thinking we’d be over 400. We’re a little further than that now. I’m excited," Bailey said. "To be able to picture that kind of growth and opportunity for the girls, it’s beautiful to see."
The Union is aware of the fast-rising participation. Jean Berger, the Union’s executive director, attended last year’s state tournament in Waverly. She’s talked with 18 different superintendents who are committed to sponsoring girls’ wrestling. That number must reach 50 — about 15% of the total schools governed by the Union — before advancing the conversation.
Currently, 45% of the girls registered come from the 15 schools with double digits. After West, there's Dubuque Wahlert and Waverly-Shell Rock — both have 22 — followed by Crestwood and North Scott (both 18), Colfax-Mingo and LeMars (17), Algona, Anamosa, Humboldt and Osage (all 15), Denver (12), Charles City and Decorah (11) and Independence (10).
"People are sometimes hesitant about change," Moore said, "and that’s too bad. In my eyes, high school is about opportunity. Girls should have the opportunity to wrestle. Not only that, but they should be able to practice and compete against other girls.
"There were always a few that wrestled when I was in school. I think there would’ve been a lot more if we had something like this."
West’s efforts began when assistant coach Kody Pudil reached out to Waverly-Shell Rock coach Eric Whitcome and quizzed him about how he put the Go-Hawk girls’ team together last year. Whitcome emailed a survey to every girl in his school to gauge interest, and meetings followed to hammer out the details — practice times, uniforms, schedule, all that.
Moore and Pudil followed a similar path and were pleasantly surprised when 30 girls responded to their survey with genuine interest. Meetings followed, a few more coaches were brought on to help, and on Dec. 3, 24 girls showed up for West’s first girls’ wrestling practice.
"We’ve had anywhere from 25-30 girls consistently," Pudil said. "Hopefully more schools look at themselves and ask, how many girls really want to do this? If you give the girls that opportunity — and that’s all we did here — they’re going to run with it.
15 People to Watch in 2020: These Iowans are working for good in the new year
"Saying, ‘We support girls’ wrestling, but come join the boys’ — that’s OK. But giving them coaches, practice partners, their own schedule, that’s a different level of commitment that other teams need to start making. Give them an avenue to pursue something that’s theirs."
Moore and his staff plan to do more to help raise awareness. West hosts its annual Lepic Duals in January, and Waverly-Shell Rock is expected to attend. During the competition’s intermission, the West and Waverly girls’ teams will dual each other under the spotlight.
"If we do it at the end, all the teams and fans will be on their way out," Pudil said. "If you do it in the middle, we’re going to have 700 people in the gym watching girls’ wrestling.
"How great is that?"
The state’s girls’ wrestling movement has blossomed with a force not previously seen, but even still, a few years likely separate in-state wrestling fans from their long-held dream — that girls’ wrestling will be officially recognized as a sport in Iowa.
But efforts from West, thanks to Moore and his staff, ensure that the end goal is closer than it’s ever been.
"At some point," said Justin Koethe, a past Trojan wrestler who was hired to help coach West’s girls’ team, "the girls will be on the same level as the guys, with full lineups and duals and tournaments and everything — and it will be awesome."
About 'People to Watch'
The Des Moines Register's "15 People to Watch in 2020" are movers and shakers, givers and doers. They were chosen by Des Moines Register news staff from scores of reader nominations. Their stories will run in the Register through Jan. 5.
Get to know Nate Moore
- BORN: 1990
- RESIDENCE: Iowa City
- EDUCATION: Iowa City West High School, University of Iowa
- OCCUPATION: Head wrestling coach at Iowa City West High School
- CLAIM TO FAME: Two-time state champ at Iowa City West, two-time letter winner at University of Iowa
- TITLES or POSITIONS of NOTE: Owner of All Spray Powerwashing Services
- FAMILY: Parents, Dennis and Denise; brother, Nate, also an Iowa wrestler; cousin Cliff was a 2004 NCAA Champion for Iowa
- WEBSITE: iowacitywestwrestling.com
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.
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