DULUTH -- It clings to a grappler stepping inside the circle, so courage is needed to pry it off while battling an opponent in a gym full of scrutinizing spectators.
The isolation melts away in victory, but stifles a wrestler suffering a defeat.
Girls who choose to pursue wrestling face solitude long before they step on the mat. Competing in a sport supercharged with high doses of testosterone and cultural bias, they are relegated to their own locker rooms and scales to dress and weigh in apart from their teammates. Then, often their male peers will refuse to compete against them, forfeiting a match rather than wrestling a girl and risk losing.
But Kristina Erickson and Jolynne Denman accept the challenges of competing in a male-dominated sport and focus on its rewards, such as gaining discipline and self-confidence, making lifelong friends, staying fit and learning how to accept both victory and defeat.
Erickson, 14, and Denman, 15, followed up a season of wrestling mostly boys for the junior varsity team at Cloquet High School with a strong showing against girls. Erickson, an eighth-grader, and Denman, a ninth-grader, finished first and second, respectively, at the USA Wrestling state women's tournament, and Erickson brought home a national title from the USA Wrestling national women's tourney in her 135-pound weight class in Oklahoma City in March.
"It was pretty incredible and surprising," Erickson said. "The entire year we saw one other girl wrestler during the regular season, and then we go to nationals and there are hundreds of them."
Al Denman, Cloquet wrestling coach and Jolynne's father, believes their encounters with other girl wrestlers will become commonplace as the U.S. embraces female athletes and sheds some of the longtime biases associated with women participating in the sport.
"Women's wrestling is getting more and more popular. And since they added women's wrestling to the Olympics (2004), it's becoming even more so," said Denman, who noted that a handful of colleges offer women's wrestling, including Stanford, Northern Michigan and Jamestown College (N.D.). "They've held world championships for a while now, but internationally, the United States is behind, way behind. Certain people in the wrestling community still haven't gotten their minds around it yet.
"We still have a view of women's athletics that it shouldn't be full contact. But it's starting to come around."
Girls wrestling received a shot in the arm this past winter when Fulda/Murray County Central's Elissa Reinsma became the first girl to participate in the Minnesota state wrestling tournament. Still, Denman knows much work is needed to widen the path blazed by Reinsma.
He isn't shy about his desire for more girls to take up the sport. While other programs merely allow girls to participate, the Cloquet youth wrestling program actively recruits them.
"We go after them. The other programs, the girls just join on their own," he said. "Without any shame or hesitation, we go to the elementary schools and do a phys-ed class. We bring a mat in, we give them a demonstration, let them wrestle a little bit, show them a video and show them the awards that they get.
"We talk directly to the girls, and bring them out onto the mat and let them know that it's OK."
Now, more than 10 percent of the program's wrestlers -- 12 of 92 -- are girls, and Cloquet hopes to offer a girls-only wrestling meet next season, too.
While Jolynne Denman fell in love with wrestling while watching her dad coach the sport, it was one of those elementary school phys-ed classes that attracted Kristina Erickson to the sport five seasons ago.
"I remember her coming home in the fourth grade after these guys came to the school, and going, 'Mom, I want to wrestle,'" said Kristina's mother, Julie. The Erickson family did not have a wrestling background before Kristina began participating.
"My mom just about had a heart attack, but I went to practice and just loved it ever since," Kristina said.
Kristina and Jolynne, although good friends, approach the sport very differently.
"My (style) is more strategic," Kristina said. "I wait to set up a move."
As for Jolynne?
"I wrestle you head-on, aggressive, not afraid," she said.
Denman said that Kristina and Jolynne's dedication to a sport that demands a strong sense of discipline demonstrates their maturity and mental toughness. He firmly believes that his wrestlers prove that girls and women can be strong, athletic and fit and still be feminine.
"There's nobody around you; you have to step up in front of hundreds of people. Not many people have the courage to do that," Denman said. "Then you have to tack on weight management. There is discipline here beyond what people can comprehend. There are 14 weight classes, and you have to hit one. If you are a tenth of a pound over, you don't wrestle.
"The fact that they make it through the boys program really speaks highly of their discipline and inner strength. A lot of guys quit because they can't handle it, and these girls have not quit. Against all the odds, they keep at it. I wish I had a hundred of them."
And Denman won't stop until he does.
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