Female athletes in Missouri celebrate as girls wrestling added as team sport for high schools

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It's being called a victory for high school athletes in the metro.

The sport of wrestling is no longer reserved for boys only, as Missouri schools are leveling the playing field. Missouri is now the ninth U.S. state to sanction girls wrestling as a championship sport at the high school level.

A big step toward athletic equality begins by getting down and dirty. That fact could be seen in action at Oak Park High School on Friday, as 82 wrestlers, 12 of whom are female, crowded into the school's wrestling practice facility. Oak Park High is one of roughly 25 Missouri-based schools in the Kansas City metro adding a girls wrestling team.

The Missouri State High School Activities Association, the governing body for the Show-Me State, approved the new sport for the current school year. The Facebook group Growing Girls Wrestling in Missouri and Surrounding Areas says as many as 87 MSHSAA schools have added girls wrestling teams, rather than requiring female wrestlers to join boys teams and compete against male opponents.

"I think it's a huge opportunity for women and girls in general," said Tracy Taylor, Oak Park High girls wrestling coach.

Taylor, who said she grew up in a wrestling family in nearby Excelsior Springs, said this decision gives young women a chance to compete. The Oak Park girls practice alongside male wrestlers at the school. Taylor said she didn't have an option in her high school days. She had to wrestle boys.

"Having a girls-only division in wrestling, where they're able to compete against other girls, it gives them a better opportunity to succeed. It's going to set them up for success. They won't have the same challenges to overcome, but they'll still have to face challenges," Taylor said.

Omar Padilla, Oak Park boys wrestling coach, joined the high school two years ago, having enjoyed a long, successful run at Park Hill High School. Padilla said MSHSAA's decision to foster girls wrestling teams brought a powerful response from his school's athletic office.

"We're all in. We went out and got girls to compete. We're really excited for our girls program here," Padilla glowed.

And, so far, the results are robust.

On Nov. 24, Oak Park hosted what is believed to be the first all-girls wrestling tournament in Missouri high school history. More than 100 young women competed, and seven of Oak Park's wrestlers won their matches, including a couple by pinfall. It was the first organized wrestling match for some of those athletes.

"They all learned something. They all grew from the experience," Padilla said.

Female athletes in Kansas could get the same opportunity soon.

Mark Lentz, an assistant executive director with the Kansas State High School Activities Association, told FOX4 prep athletic leaders across the Sunflower State will vote in April as to whether or not to sanction girls wrestling teams.

"Hopefully, it continues to take off, and women's wrestling will be equally as competitive and popular as guys' wrestling," Taylor said Friday.

"Wrestling has taught me a lot of mental toughness, a lot of mental toughness," said Mary Annello, an Oak Park High senior wrestler. "You can't depend on anybody else. If you're having a bad day, you have to sweep it off your shoulders, and you have to go out there and compete."

"You get to learn how independent you can be on the mat and learn your own strength," said Jazlynn Mahoney, an Oak Park High sophomore wrestler. "To be able to go out there and wrestle girls is a good feeling."

Wrestling means a lot to Oak Park High. The school owns seven state championships since 2000. Padilla said there's no difference is working with one gender versus the other since every athlete is unique to begin with.

"Coming out and being part of this, the girls are going to be more disciplined. They're going to learn to push themselves harder than they ever thought possible. They're going to learn skills they're going to carry for the rest of their lives," Taylor added.