MAGNA — When Emily Finlinson learned that girls wrestling is probably going to be Utah’s newest sanctioned high school sport next year, she couldn’t stop the tears.

“I bawled,” said Finlinson, one of the state’s first female wrestlers. “I only wrestled until I got to high school. ... Now my daughter and granddaughter can compete equally in a sport I’m passionate about.”

Months before the board of trustees for the Utah High School Activities Association voted to tentatively approve girls wrestling for the 2020-21 school year if some details can be worked out by April, Finlinson realized just how many girls share her passion for a sport that hasn’t always welcomed them.

Her son’s high school coach, Westlake High’s Cody Burdett, included girls in his junior high recruiting trip and the response still shocks them.

“It blew my mind,” said Finlinson, who started wrestling at age 11 when her little brother took up the sport in 1987. “We had 41 girls at that very first practice, and 35 of them have stayed with it.”

In fact, so many girls wanted to wrestle for Westlake High in Saratoga Springs that Finlinson agreed to do what she’d resisted for years.

“That’s the reason I decided to be an assistant coach,” she said. “I’ve coached my son when he was younger, and I would yell and yell at Jacob’s meets. The coaches would say, ‘Come coach.’ I would say, ‘No, no, no.’”

In fact, when her daughter, who is a freshman, asked her mom if she could wrestle, Finlinson was initially skeptical because without a league of their own, girls have to compete against boys. And while there are rare girls who can compete with and even beat boys on a regular basis, the vast majority of girls say they can’t compete with the strength of their male competitors and they’d rather take on opponents they have a chance at beating.

Cyprus High School girls wrestling coach Cara Romeike, center in yellow, leads the team in a cheer at the end of a practice at the Magna school on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. | Colter Peterson, Deseret News

“I only wrestled until I got to high school because the boys were so much stronger,” Finlinson recalled. “I wrestled in girls leagues nationally, and I competed on the women’s national team when I was 13 years old. It was a whole different world and I loved it.”

She said now watching her daughter wrestle from the coach’s chair floods her with emotions — joy, pride and maybe a tinge of regret that she never had the opportunities her daughter is embracing. 

“I’m so happy she can have this experience,” she said. “At our first tournament (all girls brackets), nine of our girls took first place. ... I teared up a little bit. I’m very strong, and I’m a hard competitor.

“But I’ll never forget being in Idaho. ... The mother of a boy I’d just beat came over and put her arm around me and said, ‘Have you ever considered ballet? You’re too pretty to wrestle.’ That seriously hurt me so bad. I was 12 years old and I thought it was so mean. Those are the kinds of things I don’t think girls should have to go through.”

But they have, most of them for decades.

Struggling to find a place

Girls have endured insults, isolation and doors slammed in their faces. 

Sage Mortimer, from Spanish Fork’s American Leadership Academy, is the No. 1 ranked female prep wrestler in the country at 100 pounds, and yet, she still runs into competitors who don’t want to compete against her. Last year, as one of the state’s best wrestlers, she was invited to compete in the all-star duals

But just before her match began, she learned that her opponent refused to take the mat against a girl. A boy she knew from another school quickly stepped in as a replacement, and she earned a win.

In the post-match interviews, she and her coach offered another explanation, therefore avoiding the polarizing conversation about whether or not it is fair to either competitor that girls are forced to wrestle on boys teams in 31 states, although Utah will likely change that number to 30 in April of 2020.

But being turned down for a match is just one of the many ways girls have struggled to find their place in the sport where there are not separate leagues for girls.

Cyprus High School girls wrestling coach Cara Romeike, left, directs Clara Sandberg and Isaac Cheney on a move during a practice at the Magna school on Monday, Nov. 18, 2019. | Colter Peterson, Deseret News

In 2017, Kathleen Janis had to sue the Davis School District to be allowed to wrestle on her junior high team. As part of the settlement of that lawsuit, girls are now allowed to wrestle at the junior high level.

In Pleasant Grove, girls who attempted to sign up for elementary age and junior high level programs through the city’s recreation center were told girls could only wrestle if they recruited other girls to wrestle against. 

“It’s a boys only wrestling team,” said coach Ryan Levin, who is a volunteer that runs the program. “What we’ve done in the past, is if there are at least four of them, we allow them to practice, as long as their parents can help. This year we made an exception and allowed two girls, and it’s not working out. ... There are other cities that have girls programs or more girls. They’re welcome to go over there. We just don’t have a girls team.”

He said the program doesn’t allow girls to wrestle against boys, but it’s unclear who made that rule. The Deseret News tried to get clarity from Pleasant Grove High School and the Alpine School District, but neither returned multiple phone calls or email messages asking for clarification about who oversees the program, who makes the rules, and why girls can’t wrestle boys, as they do in other programs.

Situations like the one in Pleasant Grove matter because it can be difficult to build interest among female wrestlers if they don’t have the same accessibility to development programs at the same ages that boys do.

“It’s been in the Olympics for over 20 years,” said Billy Cox, a former wrestling coach whose children, including his daughter, wrestled from the time they were small.

“There are girls who want to wrestle. It’s the fastest-growing participation sport for girls, and with the visibility of mixed martial arts, and women wanting to do more combat sports, it’s only going to grow more. ... It’s a huge disadvantage not only in wrestling against boys once you get to high school, but it’s a huge disadvantage if you want to go out and wrestle in national tournaments — or even around the world.”

Cyprus High School girls wrestling coach Cara Romeike, center, reacts as the boys assistant coaches thank her for showing them a new move during a practice at the Magna school on Monday, Nov. 18, 2019. | Colter Peterson, Deseret News

Expanding opportunities

Part of the issue with expanding opportunities for boys and girls is deciding when the high schools have enough interest to offer that sport to all high school students.

The question, especially when it comes to expanding opportunities for girls is always: Which comes first, opportunity or interest?

For decades, if girls wanted to wrestle, they had to wrestle on boys teams, and most of the time against male competitors. 

Burdett spends a few days each spring at the junior high schools that feed Westlake High School. His goal is simple: Show as many teens as possible how much fun it would be to wrestle for the Thunder.

The invitations have never been gender specific, but because wrestling is considered a boys sport, it’s mostly boys who show up for the meeting and demonstrations with Burdett and his staff. But the last time he made his recruiting visits, he changed his pitch.

“I’d heard rumblings that the state might add girls wrestling as a sport,” Burdett said. “Our school has never had girls competing with boys. We’ve had girls in our youth and junior high programs, but none have come up and wrestled.”

So when he visited the junior high P.E. classes this fall, he invited girls, explaining they’d likely be getting a league of their own next year.

“I was really surprised,” he said of the interest. “We had 40 girls show up. ... Right now I have 30 girls and 60 boys. ... It showed me there was a need for this. It wasn’t just a few girls. There aren’t contact sports available for girls, and we’re trying to fill that void. Girls have latched onto that.”

The Granite School District was so certain girls wrestling is going to be sanctioned, it hired the first head coach to oversee a high school program — Cara Romeike, who oversees the girls team at Cyprus High.

The native of Coppell, Texas, grew up wrestling in sanctioned girls leagues, something her homes state has had since 1999.

“In Texas, girls wrestling is huge,” she said, noting her small high school didn’t offer wrestling, so she took a bus to a school that did offer the sport. “We had a team of about 20 girls, and that’s the norm for high schools. We practice and compete against just girls.”

Even competing in their own leagues, girls still endure the looks, the comments and the officials who do not think they belong in the sport.

“You always get those people who, when you tell them you’re a wrestler, they look super shocked,” she said, laughing slightly. “You get those people who say, ‘Honey, you shouldn’t wrestle. You’re too pretty. Is that something young ladies should be doing?’ And my answer is of course, ‘It is. I should be able to do what I am good at and what I love.’”

She began coaching girls at Cyprus High even before the Utah High School Activities Association decided whether it will be a sanctioned sport next year. For the girls she coaches, it is an opportunity to learn the sport from someone who understands them in ways that even the most inclusive and empathetic male coach cannot.

Bailee Hawks Nelson, the sophomore captain of the girls team, took up wrestling a year ago because she thought it would help her reach her goal of becoming an MMA fighter.

“I was a bad child,” she said after leading her team in a cheer for a teammate who just beat her male competitor at a duel against Clearfield. “I got in a lot of fistfights, and my dad had had enough. He threw me in and said, ‘If you want to fight, you’re going to do it for real.’ Now I’m a 4.0 student, and all I care about is wrestling. My whole life has been flipped upside down.”

Cyprus High School girls wrestling coach Cara Romeike, back, demonstrates a move on assistant coach Angel Garcia during a practice at the Magna school on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. | Colter Peterson, Deseret News

Pinning everything down

Brenan Jackson, assistant director of the Utah High School Activities Association, oversees wrestling and is working to make sure the tentative sanctioning girls wrestling earned on Nov. 21 will become final in April.

There are still issues to be solved — like what weight classes will female wrestlers compete in and how many classifications will be offered.

“It’s been approved to explore as an emerging sport, and the final vote will be in April,” Jackson said. “It will go into effect for the 2020-21 season, and I feel confident we can move forward with girls wrestling. But the board of trustees will make that final determination in April.”

Utah would become the 20th state to sanction girls wrestling, something many in the sport feel is long overdue.

“It would have been a really cool experience for me in high school,” said Hailey Cox, who wrestled on the boys team at Maple Mountain High in Spanish Fork and graduated in 2018. “I think there would have been more unity for me being on a girls team. There was still a lot of energy on a boys team, and I was blessed with really great teammates. ... But there is definitely a difference once you get to high school of being able to compete with men. At the weight I was wrestling (132 pounds), they have man strength. I can’t compete with that strength.”

She said the first time she wrestled against other girls was also challenging because she’d been training to wrestle against boys. But one thing quickly became clear.

“Being able to wrestle against girls, the match really was about who was the better wrestler,” she said. “When I was wrestling boys, I had to rely on technique and quickness to work around their strength (advantage). It’s really hard wrestling guys.”

Some girls like wrestling boys and even feel like it makes them better wrestlers to face male opponents.

“I just feel more (accomplished) when I beat guys,” said freshman Clara Sandberg, who beat her male competitor at a junior varsity dual at Cyprus High last month. “Some girls can’t do as much as the guys. When I wrestle guys and beat them, it makes me feel better that women can do this.”

She said society lets them know men are better athletes, and so having the chance to compete against them feels like a more equitable opportunity.

But some girls, like Emalie Clark, a 14-year-old freshman, said she loves having a female coach and a team of her own. She won a grueling decision against her male opponent, and she said it’s helped her keep her emotions in check.

“I want to do it to show that I can be strong in my family,” she said. “I am the youngest girl in my family and everyone thinks I can’t do a lot of stuff. I don’t have certain talents for some things, but wrestling seems to be one of my talents.”

Ashton Cox, 15, said he has been wrestling for two years and appreciates what Romeike brings to the team.

“She has a lot more finesse,” he said. “She likes to find what she can do against or take from her opponents. ... Coach Josh Checketts, he just does exactly what he wants to do. He still takes what (opponents) give him, but he will bring his own will upon (opponents).”

He is thrilled that girls will likely have their own league next season, even though he has no problem wrestling with or against them.

“When I know I’m wrestling a girl, I treat them with the same respect I would a man because they’re just as skilled, if not more,” said Cox, a sophomore. “I’m happy for (the girls). They deserve it, for sure.”

Most of those involved believe it’s not just girls who will benefit from their own high school league. The sport — and opportunities at every level — will be enriched.

Those at schools like Westlake and Cyprus are already experiencing the benefits of teams that fully embrace both genders competing, even as they struggle to figure out practice times, bus schedules and making sure everyone gets enough competition to experience growth.

Burdett said most of his wrestlers were so new to the sport, he wasn’t sure what to expect when he and some other coaches arranged a girls tournament to be held alongside an annual boys tournament. His girls team ended up winning the championship — by 100 points.

“In an age where people are concerned about the growth of wrestling, this is the best way to grow it,” Burdett said. “And it’s great for the girls.”

And it’s not just about wins and losses. 

Like most youth sports experiences, there are almost too many intangibles to name.

“It’s bonded my son and daughter so much,” Finlinson said. “My daughter said to my son, ‘Jake, I have two moves. I need one more.’ He showed her (a move), and she pinned the last girls she wrestled with it. She was so proud to show him that video. Just that camaraderie is incredible.”

Finlinson said people may wonder why anyone should care if girls get to wrestle, especially in a league of their own. 

“I truly believe we’re saving lives,” she said. “I know that sounds dramatic, but wrestling builds camaraderie, it builds self-esteem. And there are so many kids who have terrible home lives or struggles fitting in or with mental health.

“Honestly, I just believe kids should have more opportunities. It’s about the love of the game.”

Adds Burdett, “This has been great for the girls. I keep getting texts, or I read on Instagram accounts of moms, and they’re baffled that their daughters love it. But they’re also just happy they’re doing something they love.”