Ground-breaking SH wrestling camp for girls looks to be tip of bigger wave
July 14, 2021
Two dozen girls sat on the floor of Sweet Home High School's Main Gym Thursday, July 8, watching two college women wrestlers demonstrate how to turn an opponent to score points in a freestyle match.
They were part of the first-ever women's-only wrestling camp to be held in the state of Oregon that was open to all comers ranging from fifth grade through high school.
"There have been (boys') camps where women could attend and we have our women's national camp, but that is specifically for our national team. So to have one like this is a first," said Sweet Home Coach Steve Thorpe, who organized the event with his counterpart from Thurston High School, Mike Simons.
Sweet Home's girls finished second in this year's state championships, behind Thurston, which repeated as the state team champions with three individual titlists amid its five place-winners.
The camp included six Sweet Home girls: Bailey Chafin, Paige Chafin, Kami Hart, Kelsey Rush, Riley Watkins and Kaylene Zajic.
Women's wrestling is exploding, and the Sweet Home camp is evidence of that, Thorpe said.
"This wrestling has transitioned from a couple of girls having to wrestle boys," he said. "It's women's wrestling now. It's women wrestling women. It's that experience, that opportunity, that's what they need right now."
"I've never seen this many women in the Sweet Home wrestling gym," said graduate Marissa Kurtz, who was one of the pioneers as the girls' program began to gain momentum, winning three state championships for the Huskies before moving on to Southern Oregon University, where she finished her sophomore year as team co-captain. "This, to me, is mind-blowing."
Women's wrestling was added as an Olympic sport in 2004, but the sport's exponential growth has taken place just in the last few years, with 32 states, up from 24 last year, at last count, sanctioning the sport with high school championship meets.
OSAA hosted its first official girls wrestling championship in 2018.
Creswell hired the first female high school head wrestling coach earlier this year, Christina Kent, who didn't compete in the sport until she started wrestling while serving in the Navy.
At the college level, nationwide there were less than 10 women's team in 2004; last year there were 80-plus, including eight in Oregon: Pacific, Warner Pacific, Linfield, Corban, Southern Oregon and Eastern Oregon universities, and Southwestern Oregon and Umpqua community colleges.
Simons said the rise of women's wrestling deserves credit for providing a lifeline to the men's sport, which was cut in 2007 at the University of Oregon and has suffered similarly in many colleges.
"We were on the chopping block for years and now, with the women's momentum, we've brought a whole other group into wrestling. Honestly, women's wrestling has been the savior of men's wrestling. It's exciting. The girls are excited to have this opportunity."
The progress of the sport was, perhaps, indicated by the fact that the camp sessions last week were led by Kurtz and Thurston's Macie Stewart, both now competing for Southern Oregon, and by Malea Palahniuk, another Thurston grad who wrestles for North Central College in Naperville, Ill.
All three were high school state champions in Oregon before moving on to college.
"Bringing in the college girls, Malea, Macie and Marissa, is a huge bonus because these young ladies have three great role models, college scholarship athletes that are successful and had humble beginnings but are going very strong now at the next level," Thorpe said. "I told these girls that 'you've got three multi-state champions, multi-All-Americans, college women's team captains. You've got these girls who have had all this success. You've got three great role models here. Ask them, "How do you get good grades in college? How do you get recruited? How did you become a triple crown winner?"'
"I only hope that this (camp) creates more opportunity and grows."
Simons, who last year was named USA Wrestling's National Girls Coach of the Year, has been a key to the growth of the sport in Oregon, and his Thurston team included as many as 35 girls this season, despite COVID, he said, noting that the Colts are the largest wrestling program in Oregon "and probably on the West Coast."
"I just made it popular," he said. "I found the athletes. Most of the girls don't know anything about wrestling and if you just ask them to come out for wrestling, they typically don't have any interest. But I sold it as the ultimate cross-training sport, which it is – endurance, mental toughness. I went out and recruited volleyball players, softball players, soccer players. And most of them, once they get on the mat, especially if they have a friend that comes out, they really like it."
Both Thorpe and Simons said they have had individual girls, here and there, who wanted to wrestle in the past, but this is different.
"It's a whole other level of women's wrestling," Simons said, who added he's been "kind of rejuvenated" by the arrival of girls in his program, after 25 years of coaching boys.
"Having a complete team of female competitors has been a lot of fun. My daughter's involved with our program down at Thurston. She wasn't a wrestler. There really wasn't much when she was around. So it's been pretty cool to do all this."
Coaching girls in the sport presents some differences, he said.
"Girls tend to be more detail-oriented than the boys. They pick things up a little faster."
Kurtz noted that many camp participants "are new" to the sport, and they want to learn.
"They're really paying attention and they really want to get better," she said. "They're asking a lot of questions. I can tell some of them really just want to be good."
Simons and Thorpe said because girls tend to be physically more flexible than boys, coaches and referees have to take that into consideration because female wrestlers are often capable of techniques that boys can't match."
"I've had to step into a match because the referees were worried that somebody's going to get hurt," Simons said. "There are just a few things that are a little different, just like you would coach the heavyweight boys a little differently than the 106-pounders."
Said Thorpe: "The rules are the same, but what you find is there are certain things you need to adjust to in coaching women's wrestling.
"We focused on solid pinning in this camp because, you know, women are typically more flexible than men are. So you've got to have a good solid base there."
One thing that isn't different, Thorpe added, "is they're not being treated as though 'you're just a girl that's wrestling.'
"There's an expectation here how they work. The camp is run with the same structure, with live wrestling, with running, with camp activities" – all elements of the boys camp that would follow, starting Saturday.
The sophistication level of girls wrestling in Oregon has increased dramatically in just the last two years, people involved in the sport universally agree.
"There's some really skilled girls in this camp," Simons said. "Macey Stewart was a state champ for me and she was third in the (NAIA) national championships. You can go down to Southern Ore-gon and go through the group and there's just a bunch of good girls.
"Kaylee Annis (who won this year's 100-pound state title as a junior for Thurston) is only a junior. She was in the finals two years ago and then won this year. Her skill level is unbelievable."
Kurtz said she was "introduced to higher-up wrestling" when she got to Southern Oregon.
"It's kind of mind-blowing, how many girls are out there and how good they are and the competition. I would say, getting beat all the time really helped me grow as a wrestler. It opened my eyes to so many different things. And now, like there's so many girls wrestling, it's crazy to me."
Thorpe credited Sweet Home's community support of the sport for the fact that the first all-girls camp was held here.
"I'm very grateful," he said. "Sweet Home, are you kidding me? They constantly come through. Instead of shutting everything down and saying 'no' to everything that happens, they say, 'How can we make this work?' It's been a blessing, it truly has, to be here."
The coaches said they expect the camp to be much larger next year.
Simons said he hopes to see 100 girls.
"It's kind of at a building point and we've got to build those numbers," Thorpe said. "This is a great opportunity for these young ladies and, this school, this administration, this community is the best place to have a camp because of how much they know the support we get."
"The numbers will increase and from the beginning, just like anything, we will learn from this and will make it better. It will be promoted earlier. We'll add more stuff with it and probably bring the Canadians in next year. They have already asked if they could come.
"It's just a great, great thing."