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Female state champion, coach, referee and parent talk about the future of girls wrestling in Utah

SHARE Female state champion, coach, referee and parent talk about the future of girls wrestling in Utah
Sage Mortimer, of American Liberty Academy, smiles as she wins by fall over Hector Martinez, of Millard, during the high school wrestling All-Star Dual at the UCCU Center in Orem on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019.

Sage Mortimer, of American Liberty Academy, smiles as she wins by fall over Hector Martinez, of Millard, during the high school wrestling All-Star Dual at the UCCU Center in Orem on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — When Sage Mortimer was 8 years old, she wanted nothing more than to wrestle like her older brothers. Being a girl, however, presented a barrier — until she decided to join the team.

“My dad was the coach and didn’t let me play the games with the boys because he didn’t want me to get hurt,” she said. “But I thought if I was on the team he couldn’t stop me.”

Young Sage joined the team, and has not only proven herself to her family but to other wrestlers around the state, nation and world. She has traveled to Colombia, Chile and Japan, and represented the United States at the Junior Pan American Championships. Last year, in fact, Sage became the first girl ever to place in men's Greco-Roman Junior Nationals, placing seventh in the 100-pound class. And in the girl’s division of that same meet, Sage lost only to world champion Emily Shilson of Minnesota.

More recently, the high school sophomore at American Leadership won her weight class at Utah’s All-Star Duals as the only female to compete in a co-ed match. And on Feb. 18, she earned the state championship title at the high school girls state meet — a meet that very well may be sanctioned by the UHSAA in the future according to recent reports.

It’s the prospect of girls wrestling becoming a high school sanctioned sport in Utah that gives Sage, her parents, coaches, referees and others involved in the sport hope for the future of girls wrestling.

Sage Mortimer poses for a picture at Nationals in Fargo, North Dakota, this past July, where she was the only girl to place in a men's Greco bracket in the history of the tournament.

Sage Mortimer poses for a picture at Nationals in Fargo, North Dakota, this past July, where she was the only girl to place in a men’s Greco bracket in the history of the tournament.

Shanille Mortimer

“Although I know for a fact I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t wrestled boys my entire life, and the longer I continue to wrestle against boys the better and stronger I’m going to get, I like that girls have opportunities to wrestle other girls,” Sage wrote in an email. “It can be hard to do well against boys, and wrestling girls gives more of an even competition so you can see without a disadvantage how good you really are. It brings a whole new level to the table when wrestling girls. I hope the sport grows to a point where it is extremely competitive so that it won’t matter if you wrestle boys, because you’ll have five tough girl partners on your team to push you to be better.”

Zak Nowell, a UHSAA wrestling official, is also excited about the future of girls wrestling in Utah, and says he’s always glad to see girls at the meets he officiates.

“As a referee, I am so glad to be a part of the future of girls wrestling," Nowell said. “Before each meet, I get to have a pre-match meeting with the wrestlers, and I always make it a point to highlight the girls. I thank them for coming out, and tell them not to give up, but to keep coming, because wrestling teaches so many life lessons, like how to work well under pressure and how to manage time and stress. I encourage anyone who wants to do it to do it.”

While girls wrestling in Utah may be behind many other states — namely Alaska, California, Hawaii, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Missouri and Oregon — that already have it as a sanctioned high school sport, it is seeing growth in Utah. This is a trend that is continuing nationwide, with women’s wrestling being one of the fastest-growing sports at the scholastic and collegiate levels according to the National Wrestling Coaches Association.

At the girls high school state meet this year, there were 81 girls who participated. That was 20 more than the previous year according to Brooks Robinson, who was this year’s main event director.

Robinson, who has coached both boys and girls, says that wrestling has many benefits for girls beyond the mat.

“Having wrestling be a sanctioned sport for girls is an awesome way to break a barrier,” Robinson said. “My wife and I want our daughters to wrestle because it teaches body control and gives girls the chance to be confident in their bodies. There’s a lot of body shaming, and wrestling shows that there are girls of all shapes and sizes able to do amazing things. Girls also have the option of wearing a form-fitting shirt and shorts, as opposed to a low cut singlet, which makes it a little less intimidating for some. Things are getting so much better for girls in wrestling, and I encourage parents to be willing to put their daughters in this sport.”

Many parents like Sage’s own mother, Shanille Mortimer, agree.

“Wrestling has given Sage so many opportunities she would not have had otherwise,” Mortimer wrote in an email. “Wrestling provides her with the opportunity to set goals and work hard to achieve them. It keeps her mind right. She has the odds stacked against her going out there against boys who are obviously going to be stronger than her. She has had naysayers ever since she started wrestling when she was 8 years old, but those things help fuel her fire. She wants to go prove that she can do it even though she is a girl.

"Wrestling hurts. You don't ‘play’ wrestling. You have to be willing to put up with some physical pain and Sage doesn't shy away from it. What I would say to other parents or girls is that if you’re willing to put in the work, the reward is immeasurable. Give it a try. See what your body and mind are capable of. You might be surprised.”

For more information on how to get involved in girls wrestling in Utah, contact your local coaches or go to the Utah USA Wrestling website for info on club teams, camps and meets held statewide.