The Mat: Wrestling for Change

By Harper Hummelt

Lincoln High School wrestling coach John Farinola started the season with a total of 53 wrestlers—13 girls and 40 boys. Three months, 15 meets, and countless hours of practice later, 11 wrestlers had quit; of those 11, none were girls.

I drive up Burnside and take a right at the Fred Meyer, glancing in my mirror as the fluorescent store lights start to fade. Two lefts and one right later, I arrive at the Metropolitan Learning Center—an elementary school which also serves as the practice location for Lincoln High School’s wrestling team. About ten cars fill the outdoor play area turned parking lot. The few street lights guiding the way for the passing cars on NW Glisan draw me to the safety of the elementary school. In the school, I’m greeted by hand print pictures on the wall, crepe paper celebrations draped through the pipes in the ceiling, and forgotten lunch boxes and water bottles littering the linoleum tile. These playful remnants of elementary school life are in stark contrast to the abundance of high school energy and testosterone exploding out of the gym just steps away.

A booming voice echoes through the hall accompanied by the pumping screams of AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell.’ Entering the gym, I see John Farinola. He sports the same black Lincoln wrestling sweatshirt he wore at our previous interview. He briskly walks over to guide me to the edge of the mats where I can watch without interfering with the drilling. Coach Farinola is a well-known and respected presence in both the Lincoln and Portland communities. He is the father of three teenage boys, two of whom wrestle or have wrestled for Lincoln. He grew up in Michigan. Like many of his wrestlers, he didn’t discover the sport until high school. After a friend suggested he try wrestling, Farinola attended a few practices and quickly fell in love with the sport. He has stayed involved—playing, coaching, advocating— ever since. Although this is Coach Farinola’s first year as the head coach of Lincoln’s varsity wrestling program, he has been coaching Lincoln and Portland youth wrestling teams for years. He welcomes multi-sport athletes and attracts athletes from Catlin Gabel and Oregon Episcopal School, two small private schools in Portland which lack a wrestling program. Farinola has few requirements of his wrestlers just that they wrestle for themselves and that they at least try it out for a season. He hopes his wrestlers will learn how to be “comfortable in the uncomfortable” (Farinola).

The Oregon State Wrestling Championship is just days away, and six of Lincoln’s team members will be competing. Of those six, two girls (a senior and a sophomore) will also compete in the first ever Oregon Girls Wrestling State Championship. Although energy is in abundance, focus is the name of the game. Jude, a senior captain on the team, circles the tiny gym transitioning from jogging to sprinting to what appears to be a sort of bear crawl (what I later learn is known as starting wrestling position). After about ten laps around the gym, Jude jogs to the side and immediately starts doing crunches. When he gets to a jaw dropping 50 crunches (in a row!), he bounds over to the scale by the door—dropping his beanie to the floor—and weighs himself. As Jude steps off the scale, two teammates congratulate him, patting him on the back and ruffling the top of his platinum blond hair as he bounds off to complete another circuit of sit-ups and bear crawls. Jude sets an example for his teammates, but there is little need for guidance or direction; all of the wrestlers, both female and male, have a fierce focus. Across from Jude, twelve of his teammates battle it out on the mats. The four wrestlers competing in the state meet this upcoming weekend stay in the center of the mats, while the remaining team members line up to drill each wrestler. The state competitors get no rest; teammate after teammate jogs up to them, each with more energy than the previous opponent. The scene reminds me of a group kids  lined up to take a whack at a pinata—except this time the pinata (or the wrestler) is unbreakable.

Thirty minutes into the relentless drilling, a few wrestlers start to tire, their muscles quivering uncontrollably, tongues hanging out of their mouths from exhaustion. They take a little extra time staring up at the maze of pipes zigzagging across the gym’s ceiling before fighting their way back to a standing position. Noticing the wrestlers increasing exhaustion, Coach Farinola starts calling out messages to his players. As Isabelle Slevin, senior captain of the girls’ team, takes down Marco Farinola, a qualifier for the 120 pound state wrestling championship, Coach Farinola calls out, “Attack him. Make him work while he’s tired!” (Farinola). Just as Marco is about to pass out, his focus wavering, the booming voice returns, overpowering even the raucous rock and roll music. “Dig deep! Good wrestling stance,” shouts Coach Farinola (Farinola). And later, with Marco lying on his stomach, pinned down by Isabelle’s elbows, Coach Farinola calls out,“Think of something positive!” (Farinola). Around the gym, teammates begin to echo Coach Farinola’s words. “C’mon, what was that Marco?” senior wrestler Carson Hugill says while bending down to eye level with Marco. “Say it!” cries out Coach Farinola. Finally, Marco chokes out something I don’t catch, but it seems to pass the test for his coach and work in Marco’s favor as he fights his way out of the pin. As a girl, I was secretly proud when I saw Isabelle pin Marco. But for everyone else, it was business as usual; nobody seemed to notice that a girl just pinned a boy. Five feet away from Marco, state qualifier Sophie Keefer successfully fights off teammate after teammate (both boys and girls), eagerly looking for her next competitor as her coach scans the gym searching for teammates willing to stand for one more round.

There are few rules for this type of practice. The purpose is to get in lots of reps, compete against a variety of styles, and learn new holds or escape techniques. Coach Farinola enlightened me with a few common rules of “scholastic wrestling” which is “the style of amateur wrestling practiced at the high school and middle school levels in the United States” (“Scholastic Wrestling”).  Similar to other team sports, such as soccer and basketball, there are fouls in wrestling; however, these fouls go by the name ‘penalty points.’ Wrestlers commonly get penalty calls for illegal holds or punching and biting. An illegal hold, where someone holds their opponent’s body in an unnatural or dangerous position, gives one point to the other player. The second illegal hold gives the other player an additional point. And the third time an opponent performs an illegal hold, the other player gets two points. Finally, the fourth time an opponent performs an illegal hold, the opponent forfeits the match (“Wrestling – the Rules”). As for biting, Coach Farinola mentioned how “every so often somebody will get frustrated…and someone will bite someone. It happened on Saturday. My 145-pounder was wrestling a kid, and he’s beating him. He’s working what you call cross face, and he just…” Farinola mimics his player biting the opponent—scrunching his nose and chomping his teeth (Farinola). Both biting and punching warrant an immediate disqualification from the match. Similar to other team sports, wrestling is based on a point system. Over the course of the match, opponents collect both defensive and offensive points which they combine for their total score at the end of the match. Unless a match culminates in a pin, the wrestler with the most points wins the match. A pin or a fall in wrestling is when a wrestler forces their opponent on his or her back with both shoulder blades on the ground for at least two seconds. If you pin your opponent, the match is over and you are the winner (“Wrestling – the Rules”).

Like many other competitive sports, wrestling is no longer just a one season committment; if a wrestler wants to improve, he or she must continue practicing in the off-season. Luckily, there are a multitude of wrestling clubs in Oregon. In fact, there are actually 20 wrestling clubs in the Portland Metro area (“USA Wrestling”). In the offseason, a few of Coach Farinola’s more dedicated wrestlers head over to Peninsula Wrestling Club to continue their season, while the rest of Lincoln’s team gets some reps at the Rick Sanders Wrestling Club. Peninsula Wrestling Club has been around for more than 40 years. The club was started by Roy Pittman, a Portland native, graduate of the late Washington High School and an avid wrestler since high school (“Welcome to Peninsula”). Farinola spoke very highly of Pittman, referring to him as ‘Big Dog,’ Pittman’s known nickname around the Portland wrestling community. Just as the players I spoke to mentioned their coaches as their primary motivators and role models, the coach I interviewed (Farinola) referred to Pittman as a key resource for him as a coach and for the entire wrestling community in Portland.

The tradition of wrestling in Oregon is quite strong compared to the little knowledge most Portlanders have of the sport. For example, Lincoln High School isn’t the first girls’ team in Oregon (though it is the first girls’ team in the Portland Metro area). Hood River Valley, Thurston and Century High Schools have had girls’ teams for years, and they steadily maintain over 20 girls on the team each year (Neumann-Rea). Additionally, Oregon is home to some very famous wrestlers. Kelsey Campbell, 2012 Olympian and Alaskan native, attended Milwaukie High School just outside of Portland. Campbell was encouraged by wrestling coaches at Milwaukie to try the sport. At 17 years old, as a senior in high school, Campbell completed her first wrestling season primarily competing against boys. High school boys were shocked by her incredible fearlessness and natural talent (“Kelsey Campbell”). Throughout the rest of the state, high school girls continue to be the brave pioneers of this sport, joining co-ed teams with sometimes only two or three girls on the team. Zoe Regan, a sophomore at Beaverton high school, spoke of her experience as one of four female wrestlers, mentioning how, “ I [Regan] really enjoyed wrestling guys because it let me see what skills I needed to improve on. My coaches are super supportive of our wrestling and many coaches that coach boys-only teams thought it was super cool to have a co-ed. It definitely boosted my confidence to see girls winning matches against boys at tournaments!” (Regan). Regan also described wrestling as “the most intense and demanding sport you’ll ever fall in love with” (Regan). The sport has yet to completely envelope the Oregon high school sports community, but the rapid growth and incredible love and dedication both boys and girls develop for the sport hints at wrestling’s future prominence in Oregon.

The wrestlers don’t seem to be disturbed by my presence in the gym; in fact, most of them don’t recognize or acknowledge me, highlighting their narrow focus and dedication to the team’s goal of state titles for their qualifiers. However, the two injured wrestlers on Lincoln’s team, Rowan Budlong, a freshman girl, and Carson Hugill, a senior boy, welcomed me and explained their team dynamic. Besides talking about important successes and moments of growth for the team, Budlong and Hugill both were eager to explain to me why a select six wrestlers all had platinum blond hair. Hugill said that each year the state qualifiers pick a hairstyle to emulate, and everyone is expected to follow suit. Last year, it was mullets. Brauser and Keefer, this year’s female state qualifiers, were lucky to get away with just a little color change rather than the drastic mullet. Like most female wrestlers I’ve met, Budlong started wrestling in high school. For just entering the sport, Budlong has performed well; however, she was only able to compete in three matches due to a concussion sustained on the mat. She and fellow first-time wrestler, freshman Maxine Fuhrer, bolstered the team. Fuhrer finished the season with a record of 8 wins, 10 losses, and a total of 7 pins. When asking Coach Farinola about a female equivalent to Oregon wrestling legend Rick Sanders, Coach Farinola immediately noted Fuhrer. Rick Sanders—possibly the greatest wrestler to come out of Oregon—grew up in Portland, attended Lincoln High School and later Portland State University. While at PSU, Sanders was on the wrestling team, graduating with a legendary record of 103 wins and 2 losses. Sanders went on to compete at the 1968 and 1972 Olympics, winning a silver medal both years (“Rick Sanders”). When equating Fuhrer to Sanders, Farinola mentioned that, “She just gets after it. She’s really aggressive, but in a positive way for this sport” (Farinola). Fuhrer just missed qualifying for the state meet, finishing third at districts. Only the top two girls from each district make it to the state meet, while on the boys’ side, the top three immediately qualify for state. Coach Farinola remarks that in the future, “They’ll [the girls and boys state qualifiers] both go back to the top four. But, because of space constraints, they had to slim it down” (Farinola).  Coach Farinola later adds that for state qualifiers, “the girls only have two regions” while the “guys have many districts” (Farinola).

Although there seems to be a discrepancy in the resources and support dedicated to girls’ wrestling in Oregon compared to boys’, Oregon is well ahead of other states in its promotion and acceptance of girls’ wrestling. In fact, Oregon was the eighth state—joining Arizona, Alaska, Hawaii, California, Georgia, Texas, Tennessee, and Washington—to approve a girls’ state wrestling championship, holding its inaugural meet this past February (“Wrestling Facts”). Following the 2018-2019 season, five more states (Missouri, Colorado, Massachusetts, Maryland, Kansas) and one territory (Guam) have added a girls’ state wrestling championship (“Wrestling Facts”). This news highlights the influx of participants in girls’ wrestling in recent years. According to the National Wrestling Coaches Association, “since 1994, the number of girls who wrestle in high school has increased from 804 to 16,562 (as of 2018)” (“Wrestling Facts”). Additionally, “women’s high wrestling participation numbers are higher than the NCAA sponsored sports of crew, fencing, skiing, and rifle” (“Wrestling Facts”).  Conversely, there are very few universities which sponsor a girls’ wrestling program. Although qualified female wrestlers looking for an opportunity to compete in college and earn a scholarship have some opportunities, many of the colleges which offer varsity girls’ wrestling programs are smaller state or community colleges with less competitive academic programs. Thus, girls are forced to make the tough decision to either continue their wrestling career or attend a more prestigious and academically rigorous school. Though the field and competition are greater on the boys’ side (there are about 15 times more male high school wrestlers than female), they also have many more opportunities to wrestle competitively at well known and academically rigorous universities (“WCWA Wrestling”).  For example, schools such as Cornell, Columbia, Duke, and Brown all offer DIV 1-caliber wrestling programs. Comparatively, there are few DIV 1 wrestling program equivalents for girls. Additionally, women’s collegiate wrestling is not an official sport of either the NCAA or the NAIA. Instead, it is governed by the Women’s College Wrestling Association (WCWA Wrestling).

2019 is the inaugural year for the Oregon Girls Wrestling State Championship. In years prior, girls competed right alongside boys for state titles. The 2018-2019 season marks the first season with girls-only tournaments; however, girls still participate in co-ed competitions throughout the season. They continue to compete against both the girls and boys in their weight category to make it to these tournaments. As Coach Farinola was explaining to me, “when we [the Lincoln Wrestling team] go to a varsity competition, I will take the top two kids in each weight class in my line up, and the girls will be mixed in with my best” (Farinola). Most coaches and teams adhere to Coach Farinola’s approach to these tournaments, taking the best of their weight categories regardless of their gender. However, there are many wrestlers and parents who feel uncomfortable with girls and boys wrestling against one another. Recently, both girls’ wrestling and the sport of wrestling in general were faced with criticism from the public. At the 2019 Colorado Wrestling State Championships, Brendan Johnston, senior wrestler at Classical Academy, forfeited his match in the first round of the state meet against fellow wrestler Jaslynn Gallegos due to his Christian beliefs. Gallegos’ only difference: she’s a girl (Pell). The issue blew up, receiving national coverage from major media, such as NPR and The Washington Post. This issue is not new to the media or the wrestling world. For years, boys have refused to wrestle against girls. In 2011 in Des Moines, Iowa, the state where high school wrestling is everybody’s Friday Night Lights, Joel Northrup, a sophomore boy, forfeited his match against Casey Herkleman, a freshman girl. Again, similar to Johnston, Northrup based his argument on his faith, stating that, “as a matter of conscience and my faith, I do not believe that it is appropriate for a boy to engage a girl in this manner” (Reilly). Sadly, Herkleman ended up being eliminated from the tournament in her next match. However, her participation (along with fellow female wrestler Megan Black’s) in the Iowa Wrestling State Championships ended the 85-year lack of female participants in the tournament. It spurred the addition of a girls’ state championship in Iowa in January 2019, followed by Oregon in February 2019.  Some argue that boys are physically stronger than girls; however, because competitors are placed in narrow weight categories, the match-up seems fair. The weight classes vary slightly for boys and girls: girls weight classes range from 100-235 pounds in five or ten pound categories, while boys’ weight classes range from 106-285 pounds in five or ten pound categories (“Weight Classes”).

In Gallegos’ interview with The Washington Post, she mentions that “[her] whole thing is that [she’s] not a girl wrestler; [she’s] just a wrestler” (Pell).  Gallegos’ sentiment is echoed by Nathalie Brauser, senior captain of the Lincoln High School girls’ wrestling team. Brauser stated that, “I don’t think that it should matter who you wrestle. Although it is a physical sport, it is still just a sport with rules like any other, and if you follow all of the rules then there shouldn’t be any problems. If a girl earned her way into that sport in the tournament, she should have the chance to continue to prove that she deserved to be there” (Brauser).  2019 was Brauser’s first year on the wrestling team. She’d been a dedicated water polo player for four years but decided to try something new the winter season of her senior year. Like myself, Natalie had been involved with team sports for the majority of her life, so making the adjustment or transition to an individual sport was a courageous decision. Brauser described how,It takes so much confidence to pull yourself onto the mat because you know that all eyes are on you, but that was something that I really liked about the sport” (Brauser). An exceptional athlete, Brauser qualified for the state meet this year in the 170 lb weight class.

Brauser and her teammate Sophie Keefer, a sophomore, spent two days at Portland’s Veterans Memorial Coliseum battling it out against girls from all over the state. In total, 56 girls competed in the 2019 Oregon Girls Wrestling State Championships in 14 different weight classes (“Weight Classes”). Keefer went on to place third in her 120 lb weight class— an incredible feat and an inspiring moment for the Lincoln girls’ wrestling team. Brauser cited the accomplishment as her most memorable moment, noting that Keefer “blew everyone away in her match for 3rd place” (Brauser). Unlike Brauser, Keefer is quite familiar with the sport of wrestling. In fact, this is Keefer’s second year wrestling; she wrestled last year on the boys’ team as one of only two female participants. Her teammates, both boys and girls, all have extreme respect for her. Furthermore, Brauser noted that, “[in] wrestling you need to know that you are powerful and that you are strong enough to be on the mat” (Brauser).

Having been around sports my whole life, I thought I’d experienced it all. From soccer to lacrosse, tennis to track, I’ve participated in hundreds of games, meets, and practices, but in my entire sports career, I’ve never competed against boys. Arriving at Lincoln’s wrestling practice on February 20th, 2019, I glimpsed the excitement of a team atmosphere in a gender neutral environment. Girls and boys, from ages 14 to 19, sweat, cursed, and fought. They challenged and competed against each other, ignoring society’s traditional gender constructs. Just watching the girls jog to another opponent and fight their way out of a complicated pin made my heart surge with pride. Although I had no previous connection with these girls, besides my love and dedication to sports, I felt their accomplishments deeply and was swept up in the camaraderie—wanting to jump in and join their fight on the mats.

The advent of a Girls Wrestling State Championship this year, in Oregon for high school girls, has yet to change the competition during the season. Girls are still allowed to attend co-ed tournaments, and they are also provided opportunities to solely wrestle against fellow girls at girls-only tournaments. In the future, it appears that the movement to provide girls with more opportunities to wrestle each other may separate the sport by gender. As an outsider, the most intriguing aspect of the sport is its gender neutrality and flexibility in terms of defining ‘a wrestler.’ The National Wrestling Coaches Association cited many benefits to the sport of wrestling, including that wrestling has a wide range of weight classes (from 106 to 235 lbs)—making the sport accessible to many body types, that wrestling has historically attracted student-athletes from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, and that wrestling is one of the only sports which provides opportunities for the blind and handicapped (“Why Wrestle”). I would add that high school teams that train, compete, and embrace both boys and girls, as Lincoln does, are better equipped to support all students. The bottom line: wrestling provides opportunities for everyone—especially as a gender neutral sport. Zoe Regan, from Beaverton High School, shares that “My friends also think it’s funny how my boyfriend does cheer and I do wrestling; the reverse of what many would originally think” (Regan).

Although the separation of genders for state competitions (as introduced in Oregon this year) may translate better to the existing collegiate structure, this separation and movement away from gender neutrality may exclude transgender or non-binary students from participating in wrestling. Besides wrestling, there are very few high school sports which provide a safe environment for students of any identity to compete. Often in sports and in competition, an athlete is stretched, exhausted, and vulnerable. Competing as a team generates kinship, trsut, reliance, and a common understanding. Doing this in a mixed gender setting develops the same bonds. Having glimpsed the energy generated by a mixed-gender atmosphere, I hope to see the state agencies governing athletics (such as the OSAA) maintain fluidity within the sport of wrestling to see how it might influence and impact the sport at higher levels of competition in college and professionally. Gender neutral competition breeds equality for all, not just women.


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