ROCK HILL, S.C. (AP) — On one side of the wall, a Rock Hill High School wrestling practice seems to look and sound like it always has.
A whiteboard details the afternoon’s practice plan to the minute. A small but mighty amplifier plays John Mayer. Pairs of boys’ wrestlers, wearing baggy sweatshirts and sweatpants tucked into their socks, are spread out all around the room, hustling through drills as instructed by head coach Cain Beard.
Beard, who has been at the Bearcat helm for 13 years, moves from pair to pair, ensuring that his wrestlers are untangling a handlock properly.
“It’s going to be a work in progress,” Beard later says of his team’s youth and inexperience this season. But it always is, to a certain extent — even when you’re Rock Hill. The program has won 19 state championships, four under Beard including one in 2018, and numerous individual state titles, including three from now-senior Bailey Wilkins, who has won three 5A state titles already and may be the first in South Carolina history to win four.
On the other side of the Rock Hill wrestling room’s wall, though, there’s a scene new to this year: Several wrestlers, one senior and the rest freshmen, are working through the same drills the athletes on the other side of the wall are. They’re wearing the same type of sweaters and sweatpants and are sprawled out on the same mat.
The difference? These wrestlers — while not the first girls to come through the program — may soon be a part of Rock Hill High School’s first official girls’ wrestling team.
But even if not, in multiple ways, they’re ahead of their time.
‘LIMITED TO HALF THE POPULATION’
Girls’ wrestling, according to the National Wrestling Coaches Association, is one of the world’s fastest growing sports.
In 1994, there were 804 high school girls’ wrestlers. In 2018, there were 16,562. And according to one study published in September 2019, there are now 21,735 — a 27 percent jump from the year before.
A lot of that has to do with the fact that wrestling, as of late, hasn’t only been labeled as a boys’ sport, said Paul Rademacher, secretary of the Women’s Collegiate Wrestling Association. In other words, it’s not that there’s new interest in the sport — there’s more acceptance.
“Wrestling is a sport that teaches a lot of discipline,” he said. “It teaches about your limits, and the military is famously known for recruiting wrestlers because they know that the athletes have found their limits and pushed past them …
“With men’s wrestling, that’s been a thing forever. And basically, it was limited to half the population.”
Samantha Neff, a Rock Hill senior who was previously a manager for the wrestling team, is an example of someone who’d always had an interest in wrestling. She’d been a wrestler since middle school, but she didn’t compete for Rock Hill until this year.
“I was kind of scared to because being a girl on an all-boys’ team, and especially from the hype that Rock Hill is the state championship school,” she said. “But when we got a girls’ team, I was more confident to do that.”
Neff — her outgoing personality shining through — told a story that also reveals the previously untapped market of potential wrestlers: “I was going out to get my wrestling shoes, and there was this mom there with her son getting basketball shoes. And she was like, ‘I wish I could’ve wrestled in high school or middle school ...’
“She wanted to do it so bad. And I’ve always heard about that, too, from women — like they wish they could have done it.”
Neff then laughed and shrugged: “And I’m like, ‘Well, I’m doing it now!’ ”
VONGSAY: ‘FEEL LIKE FAMILY’
Rademacher said that when you provide the opportunity for girls’ wrestling, “the numbers produce themselves.”
“If the girls get the opportunity to wrestle only girls, their numbers dramatically increase,” he said. “Whereas, if you just say, ‘OK, we’re going to allow it, but they will wrestle boys throughout the season, and then at the end of the season, we’ll let them wrestle girls,’ the numbers don’t translate as quickly …
“Oregon was one that just last year (2018) was their first sanctioned (season). And their numbers basically doubled in one year. … The state has a role in this that I think is underplayed.”
After all, Rademacher argues, providing a team for girls empowers them. They’re no longer viewed as an outsider or an addition to a team — having to use different locker rooms, having to weigh-in at different places than their teammates. The team is their own.
“Sports are designed to provide opportunities to students and that age group of kids,” Rademacher said. “It gives them opportunities to explore their lives and find out what they know, what they can challenge themselves with. It is hard for them to feel like they’re on a team if they’re on a boys’ team that doesn’t have more than one girl, or doesn’t have the opportunity to compete against girls.
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“The schools that I’ve seen that have (a boys’ and girls’ wrestling team), both teams are super supportive of each other. And the boys find ways to be super supportive for the girls. They’ll go and cheer their matches. The dual meets will be just as intense.
“It’s a lot of just getting it out there to make it happen, and once it happens, it solves a lot of those issues.”
Beard, independently from Rademacher’s influence, has seemed to adopt Rademacher’s ideology in this case. Even though the South Carolina High School League hasn’t sanctioned girls’ wrestling as its own sport — which is something the Rock Hill High head coach is working toward amending — Beard was still interested in starting a separate girls’ team this offseason.
In order to boost girls’ participation numbers, he’d sell his vision using Rock Hill’s rich program history — “Hey, come be a part of this; come be a groundbreaking part of this” — and he’d market the fact that his girls’ team would wrestle other girls as much as the state would allow: He and his staff helped facilitate four events where the Rock Hill girls’ team could wrestle other girls’ teams.
It worked. Numbers grew. In Beard’s 13-year tenure, he’s only had five girls participate on the co-ed team, he said. This year alone, the team has eight, and he said he knows of several other wrestlers now in middle school who will soon feed into Rock Hill.
“The girls practice at the same time (the boys) do,” Beard said. “They practice with us. They don’t practice co-ed. … Until they technically say this is two separate teams, it’s all one team.”
And the support for the program from the boys’ wrestling team, as Rademacher mentioned? That has come in spades, too.
“Well, they’re all first-year wrestlers and freshmen (besides Neff),” Wilkins, the three-time reigning champion, said with an approving nod. “They don’t know as much. But they work harder than some of the guys in there. They want it, and I think that by the time they’re seniors, they’ll be pretty good.”
Freshman wrestler Alyson Vongsay said she loves her team.
“Our teammates always cheer us on if we’re feeling down or something,” Vongsay said.
“They just feel like family.”
BEARD: ‘I’M PASSIONATE ABOUT IT FOR HER’
Ask Beard what inspired him to help spearhead this movement, and he offers several reasons.
For one, it’s clear that he sees the growth of women’s wrestling as a way through which the sport can thrive. More participation is a tide that lifts all boats.
But he’s also been personally affected. He recalled a story that happened about three years ago.
“I didn’t want to pressure (my youngest daughter) or any of my kids to be involved in wrestling,” said Beard, who is a father of three daughters. “And my youngest just asked, and I said, ‘If you want to go, I’ll start taking you when our season is over.’ ”
Beard continued: “We were at lunch the Sunday after the state tournament, and she said, ‘Are you going to take me to wrestling now?’ And from there, I’m passionate about it for her. She’s still going to wrestling today. She was at practice yesterday while I was here at my practice.
“I want that opportunity to be there for her and other girls as well.”
The story begs a series of undeniable questions: What will the sport of girls’/women’s wrestling become by the time Beard’s daughter, now 8, is in high school? What does the sport’s future look like?
For Neff, it looks like bringing her family back to Rock Hill High and seeing her wrestling picture on a wall. For Beard, it looks like building a girls’ wrestling program that peers the special one that he’s helped cultivate on the boys’ side.
In this particular moment — one that bears witness to two teams practicing together in the wrestling room, separated by a cinder block wall; one that bears witness to a coach whose office is cluttered with binders of record books thicker than his southern accent — there’s a prevailing sense that Rock Hill High School is a part of something that’s ahead of its time. Something that history won’t soon forget.
But to Beard and the other athletes, if you ask them about them being pioneers, they give a collective shrug.
“Why start it anywhere else than right here?” Beard said. “I don’t see why we can’t do it."