I watched my sons wrestle competitively for the first time when they were 6. I held my breath the whole time. "Oh, my," I exhaled, to no one in particular. Football, surfing, skiing, soccer, Little League, I've seen them do it all. But this wrestling thing? This was a sport like no other, for only the most courageous.
Imagine taking your child's heart and throwing it on a cold mat. It is now up to him to try and retrieve it as it is twisted, pulled and stomped on. For minutes that seem like an eternity, you watch him as he fights hand-to-hand combat with a stranger for the honor of returning his heart, nestled intact and warm, where it belongs. And win or lose, victorious or chagrined, he is the better for the fight. You don't know why or how, but somehow, his character is bigger. His stride is longer, his swagger cockier. It's the toughest thing a mother can watch. But if the kid loves it, it's worth it.
So we're in the heart of wrestling season now. High school boys all over the country are practicing, cutting weight, getting ready for competition. At our youth level, boys are being matched up, singlets are being distributed and the game is on.
My son's first recreation match was this past Friday night, and I watched as paramedics raced past me to attend to a fallen wrestler. Oh no, the week before Christmas, was all I could think.
"Who was it?" I asked my son.
"A girl. She got hurt."
A girl wrestler. I sighed. My prayers went to her family, and I remembered the debacle that took place our first match of the season a few years back.
Twelve seconds. That's how long it took my 9-year-old son to get pinned in his first wrestling match of the season. Dog-faced and bummed, he handed me his head gear. He's usually such a strong wrestler, so I was confused. It didn't even look like you tried, I said.
"Mom. That was a girl. I can't... touch her."
Let's get this part over with. I'm a girl and an athlete. I support Title IX. I believe women can do (almost) anything men can. I believe women are strong and empowered. So don't get this next part wrong.
Girl wrestlers? Is it because I don't have daughters that I don't understand this new trend? Am I old-fashioned? Is there no other option in the winter for young girls other than a male-dominated sport that consists of rolling around on a mat with pre-pubescent boys afraid of touching them inappropriately?
I guess I'm obtuse. Women fighting to get into all-male golf clubs. Why? Who cares? Golf somewhere else. Women fighting to get into all-male military academies, only to quit due to sexual harassment. What point are you trying to make? Women fighting, fighting, fighting, to be accepted into these boys' clubs, and for what? Acceptance, equality, the right to be the same as a man? We're not men. When did it become wrong to be a woman?
Nationwide, about 5,000 girls wrestled last year, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, as compared with half a million boys. Girls who want to wrestle have it tough, because without a lot of interest there can be no girls' teams, forcing them to compete with the boys. Girls comment that there is a lack of respect from teammates and from opponents in the wrestling arena. So if a girl truly has a burning desire to wrestle, it leaves them with very little to work with.
And the boys? If they beat a girl, they've, well, beaten a girl. If they lose, they've been beaten by a girl. Some coaches allow their male wrestlers to forfeit the match entirely rather than run the risk on either side.
Like my sons, most good boys are taught at a young age to be nice to girls, to be respectful of them. Not because they're the weaker sex, not because they're more fragile, but because girls are different from boys. Is this a bad thing?
If I had a daughter, and she came to me and said, "Mom, the one thing I truly want to do in the winter is wrestle," I would try to talk her out of it using common sense and rationale. If she still insisted, I guess I'd let her. But how I could be really sure she was getting a fair shake out on that testosterone-charged mat? My son let that girl win, and how is that fair to him or to her?
The mother of this little girl was sitting directly behind me in the bleachers. As her daughter raced triumphantly up the stands, the mother hissed loudly enough for all to hear.
"See? I told you you could beat those nasty boys!" Girl and mother proceeded to give each other a high five. My son overheard this exchange, looked from one to the other, shrugged, and said, "I'm a gentleman. She can have the win."
He was the true winner.