Female wrestling has broken barriers, in the Northwest and beyond
By Abigail Thorpe
“I finally see her for the first time as we shake hands. She is taller than me and looks like a wrestler in head gear ready for a fight, not a girl ... and she's got 30 pounds on me. Right off the bat I realize an advantage—my take-down skills were advanced, and I could take her down and release her three or four times. She was probably stronger than me, but not as fast.
“Second period I’m leading 8 to 3, my confidence is high. She's down and I'm just getting ready to get set, and the ref blows his whistle early before I’m set. Her first move is a perfectly executed standup, which included an elbow shot to my nose sending blood everywhere ... the crowd went crazy. We were both on our feet. I could hardly focus from the pain. The crowd is now cheering for this girl.”
It’s 1978, and Larry Steckman is a sophomore wrestler at Bonners Ferry High School in North Idaho, and he’s never fought a girl. Until now, that is.
It’s toward the end of the season, and the team is in Newport, Washington, fighting a small school on the border. Steckman’s opponent is moved down a weight class, and he has no one to fight. Unless he’ll fight a girl. She has the advantage in weight—155 to Steckman’s 126 pounds. It’s not the weight that phases him, there’s no way he’s fighting a girl.
"If you feel like the difference in weight is a disadvantage, she did cut 10 pounds and made weight for her match,” Steckman’s coach cuts in. She cut weight? She made weight? What if he loses to a girl and everyone hears about it? What would his new girlfriend, cheerleader Shelly Barton, think about it? But his female opponent is the only option, so Steckman takes the fight.
He wins the match, but not without a bloody nose and eyebrow for his efforts. “When the whistle blew you would have thought she just won a state title ... what just happened?” recalls Steckman. “Something had changed in this girl. She had fire and fight and swagger. This match changed her, she was an equal, respect was deserved, respect was given, and she earned it.”
The subject of women wrestling in high school was a controversial subject in schools at the time. Steckman remembers a few what he termed “Joan of Arc'' women who wanted to wrestle and compete in high school-level sports; many were denied the opportunity, but Idaho had agreed to allow women to wrestle in JV and Varsity weight classes—competing against male wrestlers.
Steckman’s view at the time was simple: No way. “My biggest objection was when I walk out on that mat I’m going for the kill using state-of-the-art technique moves that inflict pain, and until I win, period,” he says. “I was also taught that you never raise your hand or hurt a woman period. Even at 126 pounds I was pretty sure my record was not going to be blemished by a woman.” He had seen six matches between a guy and girl, and no girls had emerged victorious, further supporting his opinion that the issue of female wrestlers was going to be short lived.
That day in Newport changed his mind. “This match changed my life and my chauvinistic heart about women as a young man,” remembers Steckman. His opponent had suffered multiple defeats and she almost quit, but “it wasn't about the score, it was about the fight inside her to keep going,” says Steckman.
Over the next year, Steckman watched his opponent take a bronze medal in a tournament. He remembers asking her, “How many guys bled for that medal?” And she responding with a laugh, “So many I quit counting, but you bled the most.” Over the next two years, he saw more and more women participating in wrestling.
It wasn’t an easy fight for women. Conservative values were an ingrained part of the wrestling community, and the topic of girls and boys wrestling—and all the moral, medical and physical questions that go along with it—created quite a stir.
But then there were the economics of the question. Many smaller division schools needed women to fill their teams. “To say the least it was a double-edged sword that no one wanted to land on,” says Steckman.
It took more than 40 years for female Idaho wrestlers to achieve their own state tournament. “There were hundreds if not thousands of humble women and girls that bled and suffered and fought with no names and few victories; they just looked like wrestlers with headgear who got respect the honest and humble way. They fought for it and earned it,” says Steckman. “I see the heart of women in the very same way today unknowingly and humbly building on the hallowed ground of those before them and making a new path. It's truly beautiful when you see the path over 40-plus years.”
Starting in the 2021-22 school year, Idaho female wrestlers can compete for their own state championship in a girls-only state tournament. The decision makes Idaho the 29th state in the country—and one of the last in the west—to host a female-only official state wrestling tournament, according to Wrestle Like a Girl. It’s been a long fight to get here.
Idaho women can now compete from the youth level on, and the decision opens up the path for collegiate and Olympic competition to Idaho women. It also provides more educational opportunities for women, opening up investment in competitive women’s wrestling programs at colleges and universities, points out Steckman.
But this isn’t the end of Idaho’s—and Steckman’s—journey with female wrestling. Steckman would go on to marry that high school cheerleader, Shelly, and the couple formed a deep and lasting relationship with another Idaho wrestler, Dan Russell. Around the same time Steckman was fighting his first female wrestler, Russell was in Southern Idaho fighting for another state wrestling championship.
He went on to be a world-class wrestler and coach, and, along with his wife Joy, the founder of Wrestling for Peace, a nonprofit organization with the U.S. Wrestling Foundation that provides support to various communities throughout the world through leadership development, sports diplomacy, medical aid, emergency response, prefabricated buildings, outreach, and wrestling gear and equipment donations.
“When I met Dan he was connected to the world of Olympic Wrestling and wanted to expand women's wrestling to the Middle East world,” recalls Steckman. “I laughed at first thinking of all the issues, and then I was humbly reminded of my opponent’s path to victory, and got behind a strategy to strengthen support.”
Wrestling for Peace is founded on the idea of wrestling as a universal “language” for community. Each community, and individual, is facing its own wrestling match, and the same dedication, perseverance and commitment that wrestling teaches is essential in life as well.
“Sport diplomacy is a simple and effective tool for building bridges cross-culturally,” shares Russell. “Especially in underserved populations, sports can play a big role in teaching character and values. We have recently met with several organizations utilizing sports as a vehicle to build community. We are excited to see how Wrestling for Peace can partner globally in these efforts.”
Most recently, Wrestling for Peace and Russell have been working to advance female wrestling in Jordan. They were asked by the Jordanian Wrestling Federation to help the Jordanian Wrestling Team in their acceleration toward the 2021 Olympics and also tasked with finding a female head women’s coach for the future Jordanian Women’s Wrestling Team.
“The greater gift is not to be the champion, but to raise them up,” says Russell. “Part of maturing is recognizing the greatness in others and finding joy in elevating them. The Olympic torch is passed as a symbol of the fire burning within each person. We, too, must allow the fire burning within us to be passed. And this eternal flame must not be quenched.”
With its unique significance in the Middle East, wrestling has continued to open new doors in the area, and beyond. Wrestling has its roots in the ancient texts of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, points out Russell, and as such it also has the ability to open conversation, build understanding and forge cultural and religious bridges.
“King Abdullah II and the royal family of Jordan descend from a long line of wrestlers who are now working to create more opportunities for Jordanians,” adds Russell. One of these opportunities the Russells and Steckmans are passionate about is the expansion of Jordanian women into the sport of wrestling.
Women’s status in the political, social and economic culture of Jordan in large part stems from legal, traditional, tribal and religious values. “At the request of the national leadership, our vision is to improve the status of women in Middle Eastern society by reflecting these core values: one, honoring the great tradition of wrestling, and two, serving the community to help others,” explains Russell.
Through opening up the pathways to wrestling for women in both Idaho and Jordan, Russell hopes to use story and media to create a greater awareness and appreciation for the struggle of women—one that will create a spark that spreads much farther than just Jordan.
“With the help of female wrestlers and coaches from across the globe, we hope to see both the Jordanian team rise to prominence in international competition, and greater honor and opportunity in roles and leadership for women. We believe Jordan can be a model for the region,” says Russell.
And the first step in that process is already in the works. Recently the Russells were granted a one-year residency decision by the Jordanian Ministry of the Interior, a step forward in their goal to create a women’s wrestling program.
Because of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the quarantine has halted team practice, but that hasn’t stopped Russell. He’s been hosting a clinic, visiting local wrestling clubs throughout Jordan and building relationships with Jordanian athletes. He even met the sparring partner for Muhammad Ali.
Though COVID has slowed progress, it has not halted it. Russell has continued humanitarian efforts through Wrestling for Peace and is actively working with leaders in Amman to spread Wrestling for Peace efforts throughout Jordan, Lebanon and beyond, hoping to bring medical aid to those in need and strengthen amateur sports in the region.
“Because of those warrior young girls wrestling for their place of victory and love of the sport for over 40 years and those young women today wrestling and fighting in their footsteps, FOI (Laboratories) and Wrestling for Peace are serving the Women's Wrestling community in Jordan and beyond,” says Steckman.
From Idaho to Jordan, women’s strength, perseverance and patience is creating a new era in which women’s wrestling is a recognized, valuable and supported sport. But even more than that, it is a reflection of women’s worth and contribution to sports, society and the challenges we “fight” each and every day.