As the lights dimmed in the gymnasium at Oak Grove High School in San Jose on Feb. 2, 2013, 103-pound Gunn High School junior Cadence Lee stepped onto the spotlit wrestling mat and faced down her final opponent of the day.
Lee, 16, wasn't alone that day. Gunn teammates Jessica Sun, 17, took second in the 138-pound division; Grace Robinson, 16, took third in the 118-pound category; Ziwew "Zee" Peng, 17, got her first pin in competition; and Alexa Austin, 16, from Palo Alto High School won two matches in the consolation round. Together, the girls reflect the increasing number of girls who have joined wrestling teams in recent years, breaking into a sport long comprised solely of boys.
This year the tournament had a record 177 entries from 57 different schools in the Central Coast Section (CCS), up from about 100 entries when the girls-only tournament was founded in 2010.
Initially Lee didn't want to join wrestling. She was active in judo and preferred to play soccer, among other activities. But with two brothers on the wrestling team at Terman Middle School, her father, who also wrestled in high school, pressed her to try out the sport in seventh grade and keep at it.
"At first I didn't really know anyone. It's all sweaty, and wrestling around on the mat just seemed kind of gross to me," Lee said. "But once you develop a passion for it, it's addicting."
The only girl on the team when she joined as a Gunn freshman, Lee quickly demonstrated her skill. She won a CCS title her first year on the team. Now a junior, Lee has an overall record of 24-2, three CCS titles, was a runner-up in the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) state championships in 2012, won the 108-pound Cadet title at the 2012 National Freestyle Championships, competed in the 2012 FILA Cadet World Championships and became the first girl to win a weight division at the Bianchini Memorial Tournament in its 27-year history.
Lee's coach, Chris Horpel who coached at Stanford for 20 years and has been at Gunn for 10 attributes her success to her strength, technique and attitude.
"Cadence is a phenomenal wrestler. ... She's got this well-rounded attack and just a great competitive spirit. Of the 24 victories she's earned, 20 or so of those have been against boys," Horpel said.
Wrestling is not a sport for everybody. The back of Paly's team sweatshirts reads "Tough Sport for Tough People." Gunn's sweatshirts display Olympian wrestler Dan Gable's quote: "Once you've wrestled, everything else in life is easy."
They endure practice for two hours, five days a week, often undergoing grueling body-conditioning and strength-training exercises. Then there are the drills in which wrestlers practice technique against one another in rounds ranging anywhere from one minute to 10 minutes.
Horpel compares the sport to gymnastics but one in which "the apparatus strikes back."
"It's like getting into a fistfight over and over and over but trying not to make a big deal out of it," Horpel said.
Gunn's Peng said that people often have misconceptions about the sport.
"Wrestling is really hard. Some people don't really know much about it and just think it's a two-minute match and that people are just hugging each other. But it's absolutely different from anything else. You have to use your energy both mentally and physically, and it's really tough."
Horpel said: "It's hard, and that's why it's not for everybody. But surprisingly I have a very large team and a fair amount of female wrestlers."
Why girls decide to give wrestling a shot varies widely. Peng and Austin were encouraged by P.E. teachers to try it out. Sun liked the workouts after previously trying out cross country, track, swim and cheer. Robinson, who had been doing mixed martial arts since she was 5, was encouraged to join the team by Lee.
Despite its rough reputation, the girls said they love the sport because they value the mental and physical challenge and the thrill of going head-to-head against an opponent in competitions.
"At the end of my first day of conditioning, I just thought, 'Wow, did I really just do all that?' It was just a real sense of accomplishment at the end of the day," Austin said.
"You really have to get your mind set and want to win. ... It's almost like a battle," Sun said.
The recent addition of girls to team rosters, Horpel said, is due to a change of attitudes in society as more women join the sport on a national level.
"Back when I wrestled, there was almost none, but girls and women are viewing activities differently than they used to," he said. "They say, 'Hey, you want to try wrestling? Yeah, let's try wrestling.'"
There's still not enough interest from girls to create girl-centric wrestling teams, he said, so for now most girls in high school are on co-ed teams, and some wrestle against boys in competitions.
Though girls are not often placed in competitions against boys in the higher weight divisions due to a more dangerous strength-to-weight ratio, they say the sport still presents a motivating challenge.
"It's not about if you're a boy or a girl; it's about who do you want to be? Do you want to be mentally tough or not?" Peng said. "As a girl, physically I know I'm weaker than boys, so I know I need to work much harder to reach my goals and reach that level (of competing against boys)."
Robinson, Lee, Peng and Austin all agree that going up against boys does vary a bit from competing against girls in matches.
"Right off the bat, boys are a little more aggressive in the first 0.5 seconds of the match, whereas girls calculate what they want to do a little bit more. However, they're equally aggressive throughout the match," Robinson said.
"I actually like wrestling boys more because I feel like it makes me stronger and it challenges me a lot more," Lee said.
Gunn's team over the past 10 years has had between one to six girl wrestlers at a time , with the girls training side by side with the boys.
"Wrestling girls for me is a daily thing, and I don't think it's a big deal. Some days I only wrestle Cadence and Grace and not a single boy, and it does not matter to me," Gunn sophomore Anton "Shelby" Oyung said.
"Wrestling girls in competition is very different. Normally when I wrestle girls I know their skill level beforehand. Either I have heard of the girl before, meaning she's very good, or no one has ever seen her, meaning she isn't very good," he said. "But I try not to pay great attention to who I'm wrestling in order to stay focused on my match."
Sometimes girls face skeptical male opponents. Lee said that when she first started wrestling boys in competitions they would say the match must be a joke or that wrestling a girl would be easy.
"I think there's still that aspect when guys wrestle me they're afraid to lose because they don't want to lose to a girl, and that makes me really kind of mad. I just want to show them that I'm not going to be a pushover," Lee said.
With the sport of wrestling's status in the Olympics in flux after the International Olympic Committee's decision to cut it from the 2020 lineup, many wrestlers are wondering about the future of competition in the sport.
But as more and more colleges are offering scholarships to female-focused wrestling programs, the sport has an entirely new future, Robinson added.
"Obviously we're just starting, but there's a lot to come from girls. We have a lot to offer, and it's different from what the guys have been offering for awhile. I think it's kind of a fresh start, and it will be really cool to see what girls can offer."
Lee, Sun and Robinson will compete at the CIF Girls Wrestling State Invitational Championships this weekend, Feb. 22-23, at Lemoore High School in Lemoore, Calif.
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