Women’s Wrestling at the Olympics

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(Host) Commentator Helen Labun is looking forward to the summer Olympics. She has a special interest in the American wrestler Patricia Miranda, who hopes to bring home a gold medal this year as women compete for the first time in the wrestling events.

(Labun) I competed in my first wrestling match in eleventh grade. It took the other girl precisely thirteen seconds to break my nose. And it wasn’t hard to do. She pinned my arms behind me, kicked my feet out from under me, and threw her full weight on top of me as my face hit the mat. And then cheerfully jumped off while I was granted a brief time-out to recover. I sat to one side, trying to stop the bleeding, and repeating to myself what my opponent had said before we began.

“You’re lucky you’re wrestling a girl; the rest of the season will be all boys.”

Lucky to wrestle a girl? I didn’t feel lucky. And my luck did not improve with the rest of the match. I was trounced, but the beating didn’t bother me as much as my concern about what an unlucky encounter with a boy would be like.

As it turned out, the biggest problems I had with co-ed matches came when the match did not occur at all. Wrestling me was always optional, and some boys chose not to take that option. They said they were afraid of hurting a girl. Or they were too embarrassed. Or their mothers would object. One simply walked away in the middle of a match. These boys reminded me that I was not one of them… as if I didn’t know that already.

The specter of gender politics was both expected and unwelcome. I was never driven by the desire to prove I could function in a male-dominated world. What I wanted were the athletic skills of my best female competitors. These girls could pull in and out of contorted positions with ease. They used a naturally lower center of gravity to remain balanced. Well-paired weight classes allowed for displays of technique along with power, and the girls at the top of their form had both.

These female high school wrestlers had the rare pleasure of being young, talented, confident athletes. But they also had the rare challenge of being viewed with suspicion. There was an unspoken assumption that their intent was not to win a match, but to engage in a battle of the sexes, that they had somehow tainted the purity of the sport. And so they were lucky to wrestle another girl because it meant six minutes of no confusion: the girls were there simply to wrestle and not to pretend to be one of the boys.

I eventually got the hang of wrestling, enough to win the New England tournament my senior year. I stopped the sport in college, but those high schoolers of my generation who continued now have a chance to compete for a place on the Olympic team. Six years ago this chance seemed impossible. And although I expect to hear a lot about these women as females first and wrestlers second, I also hope that the world will recognize them simply as the superb athletes they are.

This is Helen Labun from Montpelier.

Helen Labun is a graduate student in community development and applied economnics at UVM.

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