Wrestling has been historically dominated by white men, but that hasn’t stopped the wrestling community in the DMV from trying to diversify the sport.
A 2012 study found that the majority of women perceive wrestling as a more violent sport and better suited for men. Similarly, a 2017 study found that both African American and Latinx competitors felt less welcomed in the sport than their white counterparts.
Zari Newman, a Black woman and a former wrestler in the state of Massachusetts, came to know these feelings very well during her first year of competition.
“When I initially started wrestling, I was very nervous,” Newman said. “It was very intimidating at first.”
Newman, who wrestled on a predominantly male team in high school, entered the sport with a lot of reservations. She was surprised, however, to see just how quickly her insecurities faded after acclimating to the sport.
“My confidence definitely went up in terms of ‘I’m not that strong, but I can get the technique down,’ and then, the more you do it, you definitely do get stronger,” Newman said. “It’s really fun and cool to see that progression.”
Wrestling programs in the DMV have taken steps to address gendered misconceptions surrounding the sport. In 2020, Maryland held the first ever Girls Wrestling State Championships, a product of women’s growing participation in the sport. This past season, Virginia hosted its first girls wrestling state championship in Manassas.
The growing number of female wrestling tournaments has helped the sport grow both locally and nationally. Since the 2017-2018 wrestling season, 31 states have sanctioned high school girls state wrestling tournaments. In that same time span, female participation in the sport has gone up 7% according to statista.
Rob Dusse, the head wrestling coach at Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Maryland, described the impact these tournaments have had in the state of Maryland.
“We’re starting to see a lot more of an increase in the female side of wrestling,” Coach Dusse said. “At Carver, we’ve always had a really good population of female wrestlers… but in the last couple years, I’ve really started to notice a lot more from other schools.”
Photo from the 2023 MPSSAA Wrestling State Championships (Photo/MPSSAA)
Coach Dusse cited the increase in all girls tournaments as a key factor in promoting gender diversity. On the racial side of the sport, Coach Dusse spoke to the growing dominance of minority wrestlers at the collegiate and international levels, referring to the record five African American national champions who topped the podium at the 2021 NCAA championships.
“When you start looking at a lot of the recent national champions, you can start to see some [of] that racial diversity, and I think that really helps,” Coach Dusse said. “It shows that you can come from all different walks from life and be successful in this sport.”
During his time at Carver, Coach Dusse has seen the wrestling program grow drastically, not only in membership, but in terms of racial and gender diversity as well. Coach Dusse credits his inclusive coaching style for the team’s growing diversity.
“We delegate a lot to our wrestlers,” Coach Dusse said. “Anyone has that chance to step in and lead and voice their opinions on things…it’s a very open room where everyone is comfortable to voice their opinions.”
This growing inclusivity in Maryland’s wrestling culture helped minority athletes like Mervin Mancia excel at the sport. Currently a division I wrestler at American University, Mancia began wrestling back in high school at the recommendation of his football teammates. However, he found Maryland’s wrestling community to be so inclusive that he decided to make wrestlinghis main focus.
“The sport is very welcoming across all spans,” Mancia said.
Other high school students in Maryland seem to have benefited similarly from Maryland’s inclusive wrestling culture. Having wrestled at Montgomery Blair, one of Maryland’s biggest high schools, Mervin recalls seeing abundant diversity in his high school’s wrestling program as well as at local wrestling meets. Mervin himself comes from a Hispanic background, and he attests to having never felt out of place at a wrestling tournament due to his race.
“Whenever I went to out-of-state tournaments, everyone was very friendly…it’s a very welcoming sport to anybody,” Mancia said.
Wrestlers have been able to find similar inclusivity in Virginia as well. One such wrestler is Matthew Park, a former high school wrestler from Virginia who took second place in the state tournament. An immigrated Korean American, Park reports seeing similar diversity at wrestling meets in Virginia.
“You would definitely see many different races,” Park said. “Caucasian, Asian, Hispanic, you would definitely see a wide variety of faces.”
Park attended Robinson Secondary, a high school which heavily promoted wrestling for minority and female athletes. As a member of the AAPI community, Park identified strongly with Japanese Olympic wrestler Takoto Otoguro. He cited Otoguro’s inspiration as one of his main motivations on the wrestling mat.
“His style and the way he wrestled really resonated with me and my style,” Park said. “I really appreciated that.”
Despite his choice of idol, Park felt that his racial identity did not play a major role during his wrestling career. In fact, he thinks that the inclusive nature of wrestling in the DMV made race irrelevant all together.
“Wrestling is one of those sports where they put race aside..and the only thing that matters is how you represent yourself as an individual.”
While wrestling culture in the DMV has grown to be more inclusive, the sport is still not as diverse nationally as more mainstream athletics like basketball and soccer. The sport does continue to grow more diverse with each passing year, and Park offered his opinion as to how wrestling can continue to grow.
“I think what we could do is do what we have been doing, which is treating the sport as what it is; a sport,” Park said. “Once you go to the wrestling mat, you leave everything [else] aside, and you only focus on your performance and how you compete.”