HUNTLEY – In a dimly lit training room with red mats covering the floor and walls, Chris Klotz summons his team.
“Circle up,” Klotz says.
More than a dozen wrestlers gather around Klotz as he and another coach demonstrate a move. Klotz narrates his every move, describing the proper technique.
“Ready? One, two.” The group claps in sync and breaks off into pairs.
Wrestlers reach their arms across to their opponent, feet pattering over the mats. A wrestler dives for an opponent’s leg, followed by the booming thud of a takedown.
Soon, Klotz calls for the team to circle up again. The wrestlers – all girls – pay close attention.
Every Friday night, this group of female wrestlers meets at Old School Wrestling in Huntley. They are the Northern Illinois Girls Wrestling team.
There are girls in elementary school, and seniors in high school. There are wrestlers from nearby Algonquin and Lake in the Hills, and from farther places such as Rockford and Stillman Valley.
Across Illinois, more often than not, female wrestlers find themselves across the mat from a boy. Most girls who wrestle for their high school teams practice and compete against boys all winter.
Not on Friday night’s at Old School Wrestling.
“It’s probably the hardest sport, but to me it’s the most rewarding,” said Hannah Strauss, a sophomore at Jacobs. “You have to be really disciplined, and you have to have a lot of faith in yourself.”
'They're all wrestlers'
Strauss describes her decision to start wrestling as “spur of the moment.”
Her mother is friends with Richard Tado, a longtime wrestling coach in the area who helps Klotz coach the girls. Strauss was in sixth grade when she started.
“In the end, you don’t really care what other people think,” Strauss said. “You’re doing something for you. Wrestling boys is the same as wrestling girls – they’re just different genders. They’re all wrestlers.”
In March, Strauss finished third at the Illinois Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association’s girls state finals – an event now in its second year. She also won a state title at the Illinois Kids Wrestling Federation girls state finals the next day.
Both tournaments provide a stage for Illinois’ best female wrestlers. But neither brings the same status that becoming IHSA-sanctioned would.
Accurate participation numbers for girls wrestling in Illinois are difficult to come by. The IHSA does not report girls wrestling statistics to the National Federation of State High School Associations because it's not a sanctioned IHSA sport.
But six states do sanction girls wrestling, with two more beginning in the 2018-19 school year. According to the NFHS's data, girls wrestling participation is up 188.8 percent over the past 10 years. Between 2006-07 and 2016-17 (the most recent year with available data), girls wrestling nationwide grew from 5,048 participants to 14,587.
Those numbers don’t necessarily include states – such as Illinois – where girls compete against the boys during the high school season. Populous states such as Illinois and New York report no girls wrestlers, as does wrestling hotbed Pennsylvania, among others.
During that same time period, boys wrestling participation dropped 4.8 percent nationwide. In Illinois, boys participation dropped 16.8 percent (from 17,072 in 2006-07 to 14,210 in 2016-17).
Sam Knox, IHSA assistant executive director for wrestling, said the IHSA is keeping an eye on the relatively new IWCOA girls state finals. How many girls need to wrestle for the IHSA to consider a state series? Knox said there isn’t a magic number.
“It would be silly to tell you a certain number is our target,” Knox said. “We don’t have one. Girls wrestling is coming. We know that. But we don’t know what the timeline looks like. With anything relatively new, we have to walk before we run.”
Strauss has noticed a growth in girls participation since she started.
“If it grows even more, we could totally do [an IHSA girls meet], and it would be really cool,” Strauss said. “That would get more girls to join.”
One of the biggest hurdles for female wrestlers is having to wrestle against boys during the high school season.
Knox has heard from coaches who believe more girls would wrestle if there were more opportunities to wrestle against girls. That’s not to say success can’t be had while wrestling boys.
Richards freshman Mia Palumbo proved it’s possible in February when she became the first female wrestler to win a match against the boys at the IHSA state tournament in Champaign. Female wrestlers took notice.
“That was inspiring to other girl wrestlers who are just getting into it,” Strauss said. “I know I was inspired. That’s something I want to do.”
'It teaches your daughter'
On the Illinois Girls Wrestling website there is a page devoted to college opportunities with a map of all 42 colleges that offer women's wrestling in the U.S. The map includes three colleges in Illinois – McKendree in Lebanon, MacMurray in Jacksonville and Lindenwood-Belleville in Belleville. It includes an additional 18 schools in Canada.
Colleen Kristoff-McGlynn used to be a skeptical parent who didn’t want her daughter to wrestle. Now her daughter, Grace Kristoff, a senior at Althoff Catholic in Belleville, will wrestle at McKendree on almost a full scholarship.
Kristoff-McGlynn has become an advocate for girls wrestling, even meeting with the IHSA executive director.
“It teaches your daughter so much about herself,” Kristoff-McGlynn said. “Just like the sport of wrestling teaches your son so much about himself. It does the same thing for your daughter.”
One problem with girls wrestling at the high school level is that many girls start the season but give up the sport midway through the year.
Kristoff-McGlynn thinks the attrition problem is a direct result of having few opportunities to wrestle against girls. Kristoff-McGlynn and Strauss both noted that the most rewarding part of the season for girls is the IWCOA and IKWF girls state finals, which come at the end of the season.
The girls on the Northern Illinois Girls Wrestling team know the benefits of competing with other girls.
“I like it because it’s not like you’re comparing yourself to guys who aren’t at the same muscle capacity,” said Paige Timmons, 14, of Lake in the Hills. “Everyone here you can relate to. I like pushing myself to be as good as the top girls in here.”
'I just wrestle for me'
David Rice of Belvidere formed the Northern Illinois Girls Wrestling team three years ago. He doesn’t always coach – he mostly leaves that to Klotz and Tado, among others – but he has watched the sport pick up momentum over the years.
Rice has 10 children, five boys and five girls, eight of whom have wrestled – including three of the girls.
“I think the IWCOA experiment will help,” he said, referring to the IWCOA girls state. “But it needs more high school coaches supporting it.”
The event, which coincides with the IWCOA’s fresh/soph state finals, takes place after the IHSA individual and dual state championships.
Rice envisions a world where there are IHSA regionals, sectionals and state finals devoted to girls wrestlers. Klotz can see it too.
“It would be tremendous (for the sport),” Klotz said.
The Northern Illinois Girls Wrestling team doesn’t care what level of experience a wrestler has. Klotz just wants more girls wrestling.
“If we don’t do as well because we have more participation of girls that are just trying the sport, then so be it,” Klotz said. “It’s not about winning.”
And so, every Friday the girls meet for practice at Old School Wrestling. IHSA sanctioned or not, they’re there every week.
For Strauss and her teammates, it’s a chance to focus on their skills – and forget what anybody else outside the wrestling room thinks.
“I’ve had coaches (in the past) not take me seriously,” Strauss said. “Treat me differently than all the other boys, which is like normal. Some boy wrestlers do the same. They don’t think of me as the same.
“I just wrestle for me. I don’t wrestle for anyone else as validation.”