By Shannon Scovel
A revolution is starting in women’s wrestling, and new shoes are only part of the story.
When American wrestler Sally Roberts won the bronze medal at the 2003 women’s World Championships, she sported clean, white, men’s wrestling shoes. Helen Maroulis donned a similar pair of men’s footwear when she became the first American woman in history to capture victory in Olympic wrestling at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
But this winter, as female wrestlers across the country compete on the mat in record numbers, they can look forward to new options in wrestling footwear in the future. Roberts, who recently founded a nonprofit organization called Wrestle Like A Girl, just met with Adidas to develop a new shoe for women’s wrestlers. The product will cater specifically to women and boast a fresh design.
“This is how much growth has occurred in female wrestling,” Roberts said. “Adidas is actually on board to make the very first women’s wrestling shoe, so that’s how far we’ve come. Now they are starting to make apparel that is specific to the market.”
The new shoe is the next step for creating equal opportunity and equal resources for women’s wrestling, Roberts said. Although designing and marketing the shoe could take up to two years, she remains hopeful that this development will provide more comfortable footwear options for young women in the sport. Women’s shoes would have a narrower fit, Roberts said, and would come in smaller sizes.
Roberts is also working with high schools across the country to continue to promote the sport and grow participation because she knows the value the sport can bring to women like herself.
“When we talk about wrestling, the benefits that athletes get from that are so profound, and it’s so exponential,” Roberts said. “They learn where their self-confidence is, and they learn what resilience means. The skills and components that go into wrestling, if we can get more kids learning them, it’s going to have such profound benefits on our society as a whole, which is why it is our mission to go out there and get girls wrestling.”
Currently, 30 schools offer women’s collegiate wrestling programs, but Roberts is particularly focused on growing participation at the middle school and high school level. Through her nonprofit, she has also partnered with national groups, such as the National Wrestling Coaches Association, to create a more inclusive athletic environment and market the sport, even to families who may be hesitant to enroll their daughters in a wrestling program.
Mike Moyer, executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association of America, agreed with Roberts about the importance of growing women’s wrestling and said that he has seen increased participation across the country, particularly in areas where martial arts is popular.
“I think what’s very attractive about the sport of wrestling is that it’s a great way for a young woman or girl to defend herself because in wrestling we don’t have chokeholds or submission holds,” Moyer said.
Moyer also works with groups like Wrestle Like A Girl and USA Wrestling to help train coaches on how to work with women and further empower their athletes.
“We are thrilled that young women across the country have the same opportunities that the men have had for many years,” Moyer said. “We want to do everything we can to foster that growth and those opportunities, and we see a day where there is an equal number across the board.”
For Damascus High School wrestler Alyssa Marinaccio, the sport also gives her a chance to prove her strength against the boys.
Marinaccio will begin her junior season this month, and she has already competed at the state and national level. She earned three wins last season and has her sights set on the 2020 Olympics.
“Women’s wrestling, it just keeps growing and growing. A lot of girls are scared to try it because of what people might think, but it’s important to push through the hard times,” Marinaccio said. “It’s an amazing sport. It’s my favorite sport. A lot of girls think that if you’re wrestling, you can’t be girly, but I’m girly. I’m a cheerleader and a wrestler.”
Like Marinaccio, Roberts said she is excited by the growth of the sport, but work still needs to be done to remove the stigma surrounding women wrestlers.
“I want to reinvent what the notion means to wrestle like a girl and to bring it into everyday language where it is no longer a derogatory phrase but a very great thing that girls can embrace and say, ‘Yes, I do wrestle like a girl.”