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Olympic Heights Wrestling - Palm Beach Post

Updated: Feb 10

At least 15 states have wrestling programs dedicated to girls at the high school level. Thus far, Florida remains on the outside looking in — but recent movements suggest that could be changing very soon.

At least 15 states have wrestling programs dedicated to girls at the high school level. Thus far, Florida remains on the outside looking in — but recent movements suggest that could be changing very soon.

Since 1994, women’s wrestling has grown twenty-fold, and all of the numbers point toward it being one of the fastest growing sports in the United States. In the past few years, the conversation to add a separate high school girls wrestling program in Florida has been held more frequently and with seemingly greater volume.

And it seems like the decision-makers are all ears.

The Florida High School Athletic Association’s Wrestling Advisory Committee recently approved girls wrestling with an 8-0 vote by the section representatives. It reportedly is the first unanimous vote by the committee.

Florida has a two-year protocol for adding new high school sports programs, so this development won’t see results on the mat until the 2021 season, but the first step has been a big one — and it’s been matched by mounting excitement in the local wrestling community.

Wellington High wrestling coach Travis Gray, the Section 4 representative, is one of those who participated in the preliminary vote.

“I’ve been told, probably for the last decade, it’s been brought up every year,” Gray said. “How do we get girls implemented? One of the issues has always been the numbers. It was brought up last year as well.”

While it’s been an uphill battle for girls to get involved in the sport, it certainly hasn’t put a halt to those most eager.

Hosanna Kropp is one such girl. She came into Wellington’s program and excelled in the sport from the get-go.

“You could tell from the first day when she came in, she was there for the sport,” Gray said about Kropp. “She was all-in, asking questions. She was definitely just another athlete on the team.”

Unfortunately, Kropp’s situation — a female wrestler in a male-dominated sport — forced her into the role of pioneer at Wellington. She was the only girl on the team long-term, a scenario that has plagued the sport for girls of all ages.

Of all the girls wrestling programs in Palm Beach County, Olympic Heights has established itself as being one of the most prominent — in that the Lions have gone out of their way to recruit both boys and girls into the program as equally as possible.

That endeavor resulted in Olympic Heights hosting a program with a dozen girls at once point in the 2019 wrestling season, far more than most other programs.

Olympic Heights coach Leevy Mears III and assistant Matthew Jonchuck have made equality a priority, but that parity has its disadvantages.

Schools’ athletic budgets only take into account sanctioned sports, so when coaches try to implement both a boys and girls program, it results in a lot of out-of-pocket expenses — something many would consider unfair to both the wrestlers and the coaches.

Jonchuck, who works primarily with the Lions’ girls team, says that with the FHSAA approving girls wrestling, he expects funding to be more readily available.

And in the end, rather than a trickle-down effect, the growth of girls wrestling programs at the high school level is continuing a conversation about making it an NCAA-sanctioned sport, something that would further legitimize these programs.

And more importantly, it would prevent high school girls from encountering a decision they should never be forced to make.

“When the NCAA approves it, I’m more excited that these smart girls who want to become doctors, lawyers, and these kinds of things, they can go to the number one programs in the country to get the best education and wrestle,” Jonchuck said. “They don’t have to choose between an education and the sport anymore.”

Last month, the NCAA committee on women’s athletics recommended that all three divisions add women’s wrestling as an emerging sport, a key step toward making it a championship-level sport.

The Wrestle Like a Girl organization and USA Wrestling said there are 23 NCAA schools with women’s wrestling teams, including Florida State, Colorado State and Texas A&M. There are 13 other schools planning to add the sport either next year or in 2020-21.

“This is a great day for wrestling,” said Rich Bender, executive director of USA Wrestling. “We are encouraged by (the) decision, and fully expect it to help accelerate the growth of women’s wrestling.”

On the local scene, the sport’s promising future presents more opportunities to the next generation of female wrestlers than ever before.

Kropp, who recently graduated, will not be able to benefit from those opportunities. But when the FHSAA officially implements girls wrestling, her students will.

She spends time at the Wellington Wrestling Club coaching seven young girls.

“I would look forward to the many opportunities they’ll have,” Kropp said. “Because for me, I only got to wrestle girls about once or twice a year. So for them to have an opportunity and a family, it’s a really important thing, and it will help them be more dedicated to it as well.”

As for Olympic Heights, the coaching staff feels that the FHSAA-sanctioning of girls wrestling will catapult the sport into record levels of participation, access, and success — not just for girls, but for boys as well.

“Everything that’s happening for girls wrestling is equally helping boys wrestling because you’re just getting more people involved, ultimately, with the sport,” Mears said.

It certainly won’t happen all at once. But with everything on track to add girls wrestling by 2021, Olympic Heights is set to lead by example.

“I’ve told my team a bunch of times,” Mears said, “I think we’ll be the best version of Olympic Heights when the wrestling room is 50% boys, 50% girls. And I believe it.”