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There was a big moment in South Jersey wrestling last week: Kingsway High School and Rancocas Valley High School squared off in a match. Both teams were comprised of girls.

It’s about time.

I have been coaching wrestling since 1991, including coaching the Palmyra Junior Wrestling Club since 2005, most of those years as head coach.

Girls always participated in our program, and the reason is uncomplicated: Because I think wrestling is the greatest youth sport. It teaches confidence. It teaches fitness. It teaches toughness. It teaches coachability. It teaches teamwork (non-wrestlers don’t understand how much of a team sport it is). It forces you to look in the mirror–and makes you realize sometimes you won’t like what you see but can make a change. It teaches the?transferable?skill of overcoming deep, personal doubt. It teaches resilience.

If this sounds like a good list of life skills, then why would I lead an organization that excludes half the population? I hate to oversimplify, but that just never made sense to me.

Worried that your boy is going to wrestle a girl? To be blunt, that’s your problem. The core of wrestling is person vs. person. The opponent must be respected, no matter who they are, for their effort, commitment, and energy.

I have been infuriated by coaches and parents who complained about wrestling “a girl.” I remember in my first experience coaching youth wrestlers, two decades ago. One of the toughest kids in our room (the “room” is what wrestlers call the wrestling practice facility; it’s a term of reverence) lost to a good wrestler from a nearby town. That wrestler happened to be a girl.

Why do I point out he was one of our toughest kids? Because after the match, his mother started berating me for having him wrestle a girl. I looked at him, and he was smiling and messing around with his friends, waiting for the next match (remember that resilience thing?). He did not look psychologically damaged. I didn’t have a lot of wisdom back then, but I mustered some in saying, “He can beat all of those kids”–I pointed at our guys–“so anybody who has something to say to him can take it up with him in the room. This isn’t an issue now, and it won’t be unless you make it one. ”

Wrestlers have overcome all kinds of obstacles, physical, emotional, psychological, to step on the mat. The don’t seek pity. I remember one of my high school matches. During weigh-ins, I noticed my opponent had an underdeveloped arm. After weigh-ins, I was sucking my thumb and didn’t want to wrestle him because of this.

My coach, who was old school, grabbed me in disgust and said something like this, “He’s worked as hard as you have to be here. He’s not looking for your sympathy. Go out and wrestle!” I did. The whistle blew, I grabbed him by that arm, fireman’s-carried him, and pinned him. We shook hands and went our separate ways.

I have recently read books by two wrestlers: Unstoppable by Anthony Robles, who won a Division I national title with one leg; and No Excuses by Kyle Maynard, a high school state place winner and congenital amputee.

If you felt pity for those two, you’d find yourself on your back, staring at the ceiling of the gym.

Girls wrestle? How could I for years profess the advantages and, yes, charms of this strange sport while saying some can’t do it? Who would I be protecting? Who else shouldn’t be allowed to wrestle because they might, what, embarrass the opponent? What are we teaching?

Still, it’s good for participation girls’ teams are forming. Even in our own Palmyra holiday tournament, we created girls’ brackets. But those girls could still wrestle in boys’ brackets if they wished. At the youth level, this has been too long in coming. Women’s wrestling is an Olympic sport, so we have to stop dragging our feet at the lower levels.

Girl wrestlers were always part of our team. For two years, an amazing young lady named Maura was one of my captains. Did she win every match? No. But she was a leader in our room and an inspiration to everyone, including her coach.

Good for Rancocas Valley and Kingsway. We’re way overdue.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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