The girls don’t fit the preconceived profile of solidly built, rugged wrestlers. Eliza Muhammed, 16, barely hits five feet in height while Rahkeiyyah Loyal, 15, sports shoulder-length hair, large hoop earrings and long, artistically manicured fingernails. Loyal and Muhammed, both juniors at Newark’s Central High School, are the only girls on the school’s 40-member wrestling team. So popular has the sport become for women that all-female wrestling will make its Olympic debut in the 2004 Summer Games. What makes two young women enter into a sport that Central High’s head wrestling coach, James Waldron, 27, described as “a disgusting, smelly world?”
“It looked fun,” Loyal said. Her teammate agreed. “I always liked watching wrestling on TV, and I thought it would be the same. But it turned out to be different,” Muhammed said, laughing. “I like it better.”
Surprise, shock, curiosity—all three hit him at the same time, Waldron said, when the girls first approached him to join the team. He allowed Loyal and Muhammed to try out with one condition: They received their parents’ approval. Loyal remembered her mother thought it was a joke.
“She just laughed,” Loyal said. “She called me crazy and told me, ‘Okay, you could do it if you want to.’” Muhammed chimed in that her mother had a similar reaction. “At first my mother didn’t say anything,” Muhammed said. “Then she came to a match, and she was scared. She asked the referee about what I was going to do. The referee said, ‘She’s going to be tossed around like a rubber band around the mat.’ She was scared, but she was like, ‘If you want to do it, you can do it.’ So I did.”
As for the boys, Waldron explained that after they got over their own surprise, shock and curiosity, they welcomed and accepted the girls. “These are their girls,” Waldron said.
The girls’ friends and schoolmates weren’t as supportive. “Other people say I’m crazy,” Muhammed said. Loyal shrugged off the criticism. “We won’t be with that many people,” Loyal said. “It’s just us two.”
But co-ed wrestling is a sport plagued by criticism. John Sacci, head wrestling coach at Rutgers-New Brunswick, worried about the psychological trauma a boy faced when defeated by a girl. “Here’s a 13- or 14-year-old prepubescent male who’s wrestling 103 [pounds],” Sacci said. “First year out for the sport, steps onto the mat against a girl. He is in a no-win situation. If he wins the match, ‘Big deal, you beat a girl.’ He loses the match, he is the laughingstock of the school—of the nonathletes.”
John Welch, chairman of USA Wrestling–NJ, the state division of the national governing body for amateur wrestling in the United States, disagreed. “That’s a tool. That’s something to say,” Welch said. “The girl’s not worried about it. Most boys who wrestle aren’t worried about it. Boys who wrestle are used to risks.” USA Wrestling sponsors wrestling tournaments such as the National and World Championships, two precursors to the Olympics and strongly promotes female wrestling.
Another criticism raised by co-ed wrestling is the potential of improper sexual contact. As part of a male wrestling team, Loyal and Muhammed learn the same moves as the boys, moves with names like “the high crotch” and “the ball and chain.” Waldron said he stresses that the boys on his team have respect, not only for Loyal and Muhammed but for any female rival they may face. “Our coach told us that if we feel like they touch in the wrong way, just tell somebody,” Loyal said. “It was never like that.”
Both girls remarked that they were never sexually harassed, at least not purposely, because wrestling moves are executed so rapidly. With moves going so fast, could they tell the difference? “I could,” Muhammed said, with a knowing head nod. “You could tell if someone touched you on purpose.”
The physical strength difference between boys and girls and injuries is one concern that may be valid. “Each year, because of testosterone, the males get stronger,” Sacci said. “A young lady could be competitive in her freshman year, but after that it’s going to get awfully tough.” Waldron agrees about the strength factor—the older the boys get, the stronger they become. “Some of the schools will try to hurt the girls,” he said, sadly. “Some boys would be funny, like all spite, like ‘this girl thinks she’s tough—I’m going to show her,’” Muhammed said.
Intentional or not, injuries occur in wrestling. Both girls ended their first season early because of them. Muhammed dislocated her shoulder during a warm-up session with a fellow male teammate before a match. Loyal broke her collarbone during a match with a boy. Waldron, Sacci and Welch all agreed the best scenario for a female wrestler is to wrestle another female, but the injuries didn’t deter the teens’ fighting spirit.
Welch said he admired girls like Loyal and Muhammed: Their will and determination are part of the backbone female wrestling needs to develop. “If you could get wrestling at a high school level, then it will start to grow,” Welch said. “If you could get two or three high schools, then it starts to put pressure on other places to do it—superintendents of schools, athletic directors, where the budgets are right now. It’s really an uphill battle for girls in a sport like wrestling.”
Even though Rutgers-New Brunswick has no female wrestlers, coach Sacci would start an all-female wrestling team if interest were high. “That wouldn’t be a problem at all,” Sacci said. “Like anything else, you gotta have a base. So if they start in high school, those females will want to continue the sport in college.”
Both Loyal and Muhammed plan on attending college. Muhammed wants to become a pediatrician; Loyal, a fashion designer. They would consider continuing to wrestle in college, especially, Muhammed said, if it would get them scholarships.
Confidence and discipline are the major assets Muhammed and Loyal said they received from wrestling. “In my eyes, they’re strong women,” Waldron said, admiringly. “They are the type of women you’ll see as principals, doctors, leaders. They’re willing to go out and take risks. They took a risk in coming out. They got hurt, and they’re coming back. They’re very strong-willed.”
Donna Zukowski is a journalism and media studies major at Rutgers-Newark.