Wild About Wrestling: Almost Anyone Can Compete In The World's Oldest Sport

By Paige Townley
Few sports are as historic as wrestling. Historians say the only other possible competition older than wrestling is athletics. Wrestling has been a part of the Olympic Games since it was first introduced in the ancient Olympics in 776 B.C.
It’s no wonder the sport has survived—and even thrived—through the ages. Perhaps no other sport has established itself as accessible as much as wrestling. “Anyone can wrestle. It truly is a sport for everyone,” said Tony Black, director of state services for USA Wrestling, the national governing body for the sport. “You don’t have to be the fastest or the tallest and there are all sorts of body types that are successful in the sport. Beyond that, you only wrestle people in the same weight class as yourself.”
The full-body sport also utilizes all of the major muscle groups, making it a great way to get and stay physically fit, although the benefits of wrestling go well beyond the mat. The sport helps young participants learn a number of valuable life lessons, from sportsmanship to work ethic. “I would say that there is probably no other sport that is better at teaching life skills through sport,” Black said. “Accountability, integrity, hard work, dedication and discipline are all very much a part of the sport. There is hardly a kid in the country that is beyond the values that he or she can learn from the sport of wrestling. It truly is great in that regard.”
USA Wrestling and former athletes and organizers have strived to keep wrestling up-to-date, making focused changes within the sport when needed. A significant change to the sport in the last couple of decades has been shifting the focus to become a weight-management sport, removing the decades-old label of being a weight-loss or weight-cutting sport. Today, wrestling is all about promoting a healthy lifestyle. “It’s not about weighing one amount today and another next week,” Black said. “It’s really about promoting overall health for the athlete.”
To promote that healthy lifestyle, colleges and even many high school and state associations have implemented new guidelines in order to compete. The first step that was instituted is a skin-fold test, in which a skin-fold caliper is used to determine the athlete’s body fat percentage, which is considered more accurate than tape measurements. The athlete is then only allowed to compete at their percentage or higher. Another addition to the competition requirements is that athletes must be hydrated in order to even have a skin-fold test, meaning that athletes can’t cut their weight for a test by dehydrating.
“The majority of high school kids probably couldn’t pass a hydration test, so wrestlers are being held to a pretty high standard in order to have the skin-fold test,” Black said. “That’s one way we’re striving to get athletes in a healthy weight class. In addition, many schools have programs that spell out what wrestlers should be eating and how much they should weigh. There is an entire weight-management plan built into the sport.”
Another significant change to the sport, made recently by the National Federation of State High School Associations, is the sanctioning of two-piece uniforms. Athletes are no longer required to wear a singlet. This particular change was made to combat the declining participation numbers of high school athletes. Today, there are approximately 250,000 high school wrestlers. “Many high school athletes are citing that the uniform is a deterrent for participation in the sport,” Black said. “USA Wrestling actually enacted that change in 2011. We’ve been allowing two-piece uniforms in wrestling for the last six years.”
While high school participation has decreased, USA Wrestling’s membership has been growing the last nine out of 10 years. To maintain that growth, the organization has instituted numerous initiatives to raise awareness of the sport. This past membership season, USA Wrestling launched Wrestling Week Across America, a social media-based initiative that encouraged current or former wrestlers to publicly engage with others about the sport. Held during the third week of March—strategically coordinated with the NCAA Division I Wrestling National Championship—the week included themes for each day, from Wrestling Hero Day and Wrestling T-shirt Day to No Missed Meals Day and Wrestle Like A Girl Day.
“It was a week of different ways and opportunities to engage current and former wrestlers to work with us to raise the visibility of the sport,” Black said. “It all culminated on Saturday, the day of the wrestling championships, and that was our NCAA viewing party day when we encouraged our clubs across the country to host viewing parties of the national championships as a way to network the wrestling community.”
New for the next membership season is Play Wrestling Week, another social media-based initiative that aims to introduce wrestling to kids. During the initiative’s week, USA Wrestling clubs across the country will be encouraged to host opportunities for kids to come out and experience the sport and have some fun. “It’s very specifically titled Play Wrestling Week because there is a perception that you don’t ‘play’ wrestle,” Black said. “In other sports, kids play. So it’s a real strategic effort on our part and it’s hopefully going to expose more kids to the sport.”
USA Wrestling is also making another significant push to attract more women to the sport. Women’s wrestling has grown by leaps and bounds in the last 15 years or so. Today, there are approximately 10,000 female high school wrestlers and approximately 35,000 female wrestlers nationwide. Providing even more credibility to the sport is the fact that women’s wrestling was added as an Olympic sport and debuted in 2004. USA Wrestling’s membership among women grew by 17 percent in 2016. Currently, six states sanction girls’ high school wrestling, said USA Wrestling’s Director of Communications and Special Projects Gary Abbott, and the organization wants that number to grow. “The growth with girls is exploding and there are attempts to make girls wrestling an official sport with the NCAA,” Abbott said. “There are already more than 30 colleges offering wrestling programs for girls and our events for females keep growing as well.”
To help build the sport with women, the organization launched Women’s Wrestling Week a few years ago. The female-focused initiative is all about offering opportunities for females to try the sport through local club events. During the week, USA Wrestling specifically promotes women who have found great success in the sport. “It’s a real celebration of women’s wrestling and our involvement with it,” Abbott said. “Each year we have a different theme but it’s always about the many levels of wrestling for females.”
While USA Wrestling is certainly making great efforts in raising awareness of the sport, perhaps nothing increases the visibility of the sport like being part of the Olympic Games. In February 2013, wrestling almost lost its spot at the Olympics, as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted to remove the sport from the 2020 Summer Olympics program onward. USA Wrestling was the leader in getting that vote reversed. In September 2013, the IOC announced that wrestling would remain on the Summer Olympics program. “Ensuring that wrestling stayed in the Olympics was huge,” Black said. “USA Wrestling took on a major role in being a driving force behind getting that decision reversed. That wasn’t just a service to our members but a service to the sport of wrestling and future generations that are going to be able to take with them life lessons because of their involvement in the sport.”
During the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, wrestling got a major boost thanks to the USA Wrestling team: Helen Maroulis became the first-ever U.S. female to win the gold medal in women’s freestyle wrestling and Kyle Snyder became the youngest wrestler to ever win gold. “Both of those moments were big deals. They were historic,” Black said. “Both of those athletes are from Maryland, which traditionally isn’t a hotbed for wrestling. So it truly goes to show you that it’s not where you’re from. Truly anyone has an opportunity to accomplish what they did. Wrestling is a sport for anyone.”
Click here to read more of the July 2017 issue of SportsEvents Magazine.