No longer in the shadows, this pioneering girls’ wrestling team offers ‘endless possibilities’

KINGSTON, Pa.—In an old bank hall cleared of its roped waiting lines and glass teller booths, the Wyoming Seminary boys’ wrestling team ran around the mats wedged cozily on the marble floor. Massive vault doors against the wall yawned open to weightlifting equipment and exercise machines. Giant chandeliers hung from the ceiling giving the room a hearty glow, while a warm afternoon light floated through grand windows and made everyone sweat just a little.

The “Great Hall”—this unique gym still glittering with golden fleur de lis and old trophies—is the alluring symbol of Sem’s wrestling program: it’s charmingly old school. The boarding academy in Northeastern Pennsylvania, founded in 1844, has had some of the best boys’ teams in the country since the early 1900s. The Blue Knights have earned numerous national titles dating back to 1937, and they are frequently ranked among the top 10 schools in the America.

But while the school and its Great Hall are steeped in history, Wyoming also has its eye on a more progressive future. This fall, the school has started the first-ever girls’ high school freestyle wrestling team in the United States, and it’s got a world-class program to back it up. Boys’ head coach, Scott Green wanted nothing less when he announced the launch of the team in February.

Green, a burly fellow with a salt-and-pepper beard, sat behind an old wooden desk in one of the offices overlooking the gym.

“What we saw was a need to create something that would attract high level female athletes just like how our boys program has developed over the past couple of years,” Green told Excelle Sports. “Sem was very, very supportive of the idea.”

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Now’s the time, Green said. Even though wrestling has been a male-dominated arena since the dawn of the sport, women have competed in freestyle at the last four Summer Olympics. Not to mention, girls’ clubs are rapidly emerging across the country, Green added. Look at non-profit organizations, such as Beat the Streets, which recruits thousands of girls in places like New York City, Los Angeles and Detroit.

The problem is, only seven states have sanctioned girls’ high school wrestling as a competitive sport. That means less school funding for teams, no district championships and fewer opportunities for female athletes in states that are not Hawaii, Texas, California, Oregon, Washington, Tennessee or Alaska. And those states typically train girls in folkstyle wrestling, which is not performed at the collegiate or the Olympic level.

High school girls who are serious about wrestling often don’t have a place to go to pursue their sport competitively. But could this Pennsylvania prep school become a wrestling haven for these young women?

Looking at Wyoming’s roster, it’s clear that this team is setting the bar high. On one side of the gym, 12 girls stood in a circle on the mat to start their wrestling drills. These athletes were not a bunch of curious girls trying to fulfill a P.E. requirement. Some have youth national team experience like 17-year-old Emma Bruntil, who placed third at the 2017 U-23 World Team Trials, or 18-year-old Ashlyn Ortega, who’s won multiple cadet national titles. These recruits were handpicked by newly appointed Blue Knight coach Erin Vandiver, who has served as the assistant coach for the U.S. women’s national team since 2009.

Vandiver stood at the center of the ring, six months pregnant, unafraid to tussle or show the girls how to take a proper shot. In addition to her work with the senior national team, the Pennsylvania native spent years working at the youth (age 14 to 16) and cadet (under 20) levels at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado. So when Green asked her last fall to become a part of their program, Vandiver said it was the perfect opportunity to return home, start a family and continue growing the sport among girls.

“USA Wrestling had all of the female talent in the world, but we had a missing link somewhere,” she told Excelle Sports. “Our culture was not set up for high school kids. We can only have our national team together for only 30 to 40 days out of the year. But the countries that we are competing against and are finishing higher than us—like Japan, Russia, China—they were able to have their national team together for over 100 days. That makes a difference.”

And so Vandiver aims to create a more accessible youth development program for aspiring Olympians who still want the rigorous education that Sem has to offer.

“I want to prepare them for life, too, and be leaders in their communities,” she added, “I want to set them up for endless possibilities.”

Since the Wyoming girls currently have no state championship to fight for or any league to be a part of, Vandiver has set up dual matches with competitive clubs, signed up for renowned invitational and plans on training the team for nationals come May. She’s even scheduled international meets against Canada and will take the team all the way to Sweden to face the best girls in the world.

Three-time world champion and 2016 Olympian Adeline Gray will also join the squad as an assistant coach this fall.

“It’s another blessing to have Adeline coming to be part of this team and to still be able to work with her,” said Vandiver. “I’ve been her coach for the past five years and we have a great relationship. She just has so much to offer this team: mentally, technically, everything.”

And Gray thinks the team has a lot to offer her, as well.

“I’m really excited about it,” she said. “I’ve been training with and under Erin for a long time, and I’m looking forward to be back in that environment. Also from a coaching aspect, they’ve got a strong group of really talented athletes.”

Vandiver’s training and competitive schedule might be demanding, but her practices still foster an inviting, inclusive vibe. Team managers provided freshly cut kiwis, apples and orange slices by the lockers as a pre-training snack. The team was diverse and featured athletes of all different sizes: tall, short, big and small. On that afternoon, they were preparing for their first showcase where the girls would wrestle against each other and show Wyoming that girls’ wrestling was here to stay. During a break, Vandiver told the girls to “make as many friends as possible,” throughout Saturday’s meet. The most popular athlete would win an undisclosed prize. They all smiled.

Soon the wrestlers returned to tumble and grapple with their teammates as their formerly neat ponytails frayed like worn violin bows. At the end of practice, Vandiver ran them through sprint drills, burpees and pushups. Sweat bled through their navy-blue shirts. Damp circles surrounded the shirts’ logo: “Anybody can wrestle,” Wyoming’s motto.

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Senior Knights Ortega and Bruntil moved away from everything (family, good friends, a familiar home) to train in this environment—even if it meant it was only for their last year of high school.

“I didn’t have the best training setup at home,” said Bruntil, who hails from Washington state. “I had to drive an hour and a half away each day to get to practice. Trying to juggle that with school and seeing my family once in a while, I thought Wyoming was the best place for me to get better technically and be more well-rounded as a person.”

Gray, who made similar sacrifices in order to wrestle, agrees. She moved to Northern Michigan University to be a part of their high school program for her senior year.

“What’s cool is these girls are going to get a quality education that is going to prepare them for the Ivy League,” Gray said. “That’s another dimension that I didn’t really have. I went to Michigan just to wrestle, but these girls are going to have to balance the rigor of a private education.”

“This opportunity presented itself in the summer when I was training at the Olympic Training Center,” said Ortega, who moved from Colorado. “I had to jump on it. It’s a little bit of money, but we managed it.”

It’s not cheap going to a prep school such as Sem. Students who choose to board at Wyoming pay $52,600, which excludes additional service fees. In her office, Vandiver explained that these girls often make big sacrifices to compete, but at least at Wyoming, there’s a chance they can get monetary support. The school provides need-based financial aid while USA Wrestling has selected private donors to support these athletes.

At the end of the day, you could tell that this opportunity wasn’t being taken for granted. Bruntil stayed late after practice to review some of her own drills. The rest filed into the locker room for weigh-in, laughing while Vandiver handed them their new uniforms. Coach had no doubt that Wyoming was on the brink of creating something great by giving these wrestlers a proper stage.

“They’ve gone through some struggles and have been in the shadows,” said Vandiver. “But now they can be in a room filled with girls who are as dedicated as them. Instead of doors closing, ceilings are just rising and being blown off. We might be the first [team] as of right now, but I think wrestling is going to explode. Girls are going to realize that they finally do have a place in this sport.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Wyoming Seminary’s gym was called the Grand Hall.

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