Going to the Mat
NMH joins a movement that’s changing the face of wrestling
By Jennifer Sutton P’14, ’21
Naomi Lam’s first move was a bear hug.
She lunged fast and low as soon as the ref blew his whistle, barreling into her opponent and catching him off-guard. This was during a match in James Gym last February, before the COVID-19 pandemic took over the world and NMH shuttered the campus for months. Lam’s opponent, a boy from Cardigan Mountain School, was a good six inches taller, and he recovered quickly. The two shot, countered, and shot again for six long minutes, until Lam got the takedown and brought her opponent to his back for the pin.
With spectators whooping their approval, she high-fived her teammates and coaches and headed for the bleachers, triumphant and sweaty. “You get in the zone and everything else goes away,” she said.
Now a senior, Lam is hoping to wrestle one final season at NMH. If she does, her training and competition will be vastly different because of COVID-19. Safety practices like physical distancing and limiting contact with people outside your home “pod” fly in the face of most competitive sports, none more so than wrestling. In September, it wasn’t clear what kind of competitive season, if any, would happen, but NMH’s coaches and athletes, like coaches and athletes at schools everywhere, are trying to be optimistic. “We’re looking to be as flexible as we can, so we can keep building enthusiasm for the program,” said Scott Bloom, who coaches most of NMH’s female wrestlers on the JV team.
“The no. 1 goal in terms of building the sport is increasing the number of athletes competing. It needs to become more inclusive.”
With so much in flux, Lam and her female NMH teammates can’t be blamed if they feel nostalgic for last year, when there were 11 of them wrestling on both the varsity and JV teams. They were — and still are, despite COVID-19 — part of a youth female-wrestling movement that’s been exploding across the country in recent years, making a male-dominated sport more inclusive. Public schools have been at the forefront, but New England prep schools including Andover, Loomis, Deerfield, and Middlesex each have a few girls wrestling on their predominantly male teams.
Their numbers, however, tend to be small compared to those at NMH. And a deep roster equals wins. Katie Gatza ’20, NMH’s first female wrestling recruit, led the team last February to a win at the inaugural New England Independent School Wrestling Association female tournament — where she nabbed an individual championship as well — and also Phillips Andover’s annual female tournament, which NMH won for the second year in a row.
The NMH wrestlers don’t beat every opponent, especially when they wrestle boys, whose muscle mass and strength they typically cannot match. But in all-female competitions, they’ve dominated. And moments like Lam’s win in James Gym generate buzz, said Bloom. “If you’re a female athlete and you see that happen, and you hear the roar of the crowd — that was the loudest James Gym had been all year — then you’re seeing opportunities.”
NMH varsity wrestlers — mostly male — have won their Class A league tournament for the last two years as well as the 2019 New England championship, and have twice placed in the top seven teams at the National Prep Wrestling Championships. And championship banners going back decades hang in James Gym, attesting to a long tradition of excellence. But despite the strength and consistency of NMH’s program, boys across the country aren’t clamoring to join wrestling teams. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), participation rates for male wrestlers dropped 10 percent in the past decade, and that was well before COVID-19. “The number one goal in terms of building the sport is increasing the number of athletes competing,” said Zack Bates, head coach of NMH’s varsity team and the National Wrestling Hall of Fame’s 2017 Massachusetts Prep School Coach of the Year. And that means getting more girls involved. “It needs to become a more inclusive sport,” Bates said. “Or you’re going to see the end of wrestling.”
Being a trailblazer isn’t easy. Gatza, who was the lone female on NMH’s varsity squad last year, competed against plenty of boys in her two years at NMH and “stuck out like a sore thumb” most of the time, she said. “When I’d walk into a gym, I was never sure how I was going to be received. Often, I was the only girl competing. Not everyone wanted me there.” She’d get backhanded compliments like “You wrestle really well for a girl” or “Don’t feel bad, there’s no way you could have won that match” — “the kind of things people would never say to a guy wrestler,” Gatza said. Her male opponents tended to get nervous. “A lot of guys feel that if they lose, then they lost to a girl, and if they win, then they just beat up a girl.”
That’s why Bates and his fellow coaches took Gatza and her female teammates to all-female tournaments in addition to the regular-season matches with the rest of the coed team. At Andover’s female tournament back in January, nearly 80 girls showed up from schools and athletic clubs across New England. Half came from other prep schools. Two-time U.S. Olympian and world champion Elena Pirozhkova led a skills clinic before the matches began. “It not only was an opportunity to compete,” Bates said, “but also an opportunity to see a community of athletes that our female wrestlers might not have known is there.”
In 2013, the first year of the Andover tournament, less than a dozen girls participated. In just the past year, the event grew nearly 30 percent. It’s a microcosm of girls’ wrestling across the country. According to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, roughly 100 girls wrestled on high school teams 30 years ago. Ten years ago, there were 5,000. In 2018, there were more than 21,000. “Our coaches told us, ‘You’re part of something,’” said Dianie Chen ’20, who wrestled for the first time last year and qualified to compete in the Prep National tournament.
“These are not girls who want to wrestle. They’re people who want to play a sport. If you treat them the same as everyone else, they’re going to rise to whatever standard you’re setting.”
Until recently, though, it was a lonely existence. A few girls joined the NMH team in the 1980s and 1990s. Skylar Kim ’16 electrified a crowd in James Gym in 2014 when she beat a male opponent from Andover, but as the only female NMH wrestler for three years in a row, she faced challenges her teammates did not. Her coaches were encouraging, and after the initial awkwardness, her teammates cared about her “like brothers,” she said. But “it was hard wrestling against boys who had more physical strength than I did, and training with guys in heavier weight classes,” she said.
When Naomi Tewodros ’21 — who also competed in the Prep National tournament — joined the team as a 9th grader, there were four girls. “The coaches tried to be inclusive, but no one on the team really talked to us,” she said. The next year, there were eight girls. One of them was Zari Newman ’21. She had heard that boys from other schools sometimes said, when faced with a female NMH opponent, “I don’t wrestle girls.” But in her experience, “it didn’t seem like they held back at all. I wouldn’t expect them to wrestle me any other way.”
Still, Gatza said, the all-female tournaments feel more welcoming because “no matter who you are or when you started wrestling, everyone’s excited that you’re there participating.” And the athletes can think about the task at hand, not about gender dynamics or social pressures. “Wrestling takes a ton of focus,” said Lam. “You’re always strategizing, looking out for the next move, pacing yourself. Because pure strength can only do so much.”
One chicken-and-egg question dominates girls’ wrestling: Do female wrestlers need female coaches to grow and succeed as athletes? With the sport still in its nascent stage in the U.S., there are far fewer women prepared to take on coaching roles than men. NMH’s female wrestlers, who work with four male coaches — Bates, JV head coach Scott Bloom, and assistant coaches Cris Ramirez and Gorgui Diaw — shrug off the question. “When people say you need a female coach, it’s because they think that will make girls more comfortable,” said Chen. “But if you’ve got a male coach and he doesn’t treat girls any differently, it’s fine.”
Gatza agreed. “If you start saying you need a female coach to encourage girls to do a certain sport, then you’re stressing the difference between genders. My argument has always been that these are not girls who want to wrestle,” she said. “They’re people who want to play a sport and they’re reacting differently because [coaches are] treating them differently. If you treat girls the same as everyone else, they’re going to rise to whatever standard you’re setting.” All coaches need to do, Gatza says, is to tell potential wrestlers regardless of gender, “You’re a person and you’re interested in this awesome sport, so we want you!’”
Bates agreed, too, but he also takes a longer view that reaches beyond this pandemic-disrupted year. He envisions a stand-alone female wrestling team at NMH, like most of NMH’s other athletic programs: girls’ basketball, boys’ basketball; girls’ soccer, boys’ soccer. “When girls see the words ‘coed’ and ‘wrestling,’ their assumption is that it’s probably a lot of guys,” Bates said. “If they see that we have distinct programs, they’ll be more likely to think, ‘I can do that.’ It’ll remove a lot of barriers.”
Last year, though, there were 11 girls who didn’t care about barriers. “We’re excited about wrestling,” said Tewodros. “It’s that simple.”
Photos: Chattman Photography, David Fricke, courtesy of NMH Wrestling