In 1994, roughly 800 girls competed in high school wrestling throughout the United States. Nearly 30 years later, that number has grown to just under 30,000, according to data compiled by the National Wrestling Coaches Association.
“Women’s wrestling is actually the fastest-growing sport in the country right now,” said Ryan Fell, a former collegiate wrestler and current middle school wrestling coach in Morgantown.
Fell took a South Middle School team of nine girls to the West Virginia Girls Wrestling Championship in Parkersburg on Feb. 11. The team, which also consists of some girls from Suncrest Middle School, took home first-place honors.
Janie O’Connor and Malia Dailey won their individual weight classes, while Victoria O’Connor and Jorja Hawkins placed second in their weight classes. Other girls who competed were Lily Burkhart, Kinsley Martin, Zoe Wolford, Neveah Feeley-Mack and Madelyn Mazzoni.
“It’s been an exciting time and I’m really proud of them,” Fell said.
Fell, a 215-pound state champion wrestler at Oak Hill High School, wrestled at WVU in the mid-2000s. He started coaching boys and girls wrestling at South two years ago after assisting at Morgantown High.
One year prior to Fell’s arrival, Bailey Emery was one of the first girls to join the team. Now a sophomore at University High School, Emery is making a name for herself across the state — and the nation.
She placed third in her weight class at last weekend’s state tournament and also placed third in 2022. She won a championship in eighth grade as part of the state middle school tournament. Emery has also competed in the 16U National Tournament in Fargo, North Dakota, and won the inaugural SBHS girls’ holiday classic in Swansboro, North Carolina. Last summer, Emery also won the Ohio State Fair Freestyle championship.
The well-traveled Emery has lived all around the country. She was born in Alabama, then her family moved to Arizona and Kentucky before settling in Morgantown three years ago.
She enjoyed going to wrestling matches with her brothers Brody and Tristan and practicing with them at home.
“We moved to Kentucky and I saw these two girls wrestling and they were wrestling and beating up on these boys, making them cry within the first 15 seconds,” Emery said. “It made me turn around and ask my dad if I could do it. He said ‘sure, why not’. That’s what led to all this.”
Brody, a junior at UHS, was the Hawks’ 113-pound starter this year and has been a regular in their rotation since joining the varsity team.
“Brody is always in my corner,” Emery said. “He’s been a huge part of my wrestling career. He’s helped me through a lot. He’s one of my main training partners and I get to practice with him a good bit. For a while, he was beating up on me and he still does once in a while. Now, recently, I’ve started to catch up to him a little more. It’s fun to see the progression of my wrestling by drilling with him.”
Emery has noticed the exponential growth of girls wrestling in the local area and beyond. University now has a second girl, Toria Tower, who placed fourth in her weight class at the state tournament.
She was also happy to cheer on the South girls who have been building the program since she attended school there.
“Seeing how many more girls that were there (at the state tournament) this year compared to last year was crazy, even at the youth tournament,” Emery said. “As soon as I walked in, the stands were full. It was a really cool atmosphere to be a part of.”
Fell said his goal, along with many other coaches in West Virginia, is to get the sport sanctioned by the WVSSAC.
“I’d like to get to the point where we have dual meets with the girls throughout the state and outside the state,” Fell said. “Just continue to make it bigger. We have a large talent pool here. The more girls we can get involved in, the better it’s going to be.”
Currently in West Virginia, Bluefield State College offers women’s wrestling at the collegiate Division II level. Alderson Broaddus has also announced it will form a female program. Nationwide, more than 100 collegiate programs offer women’s wrestling, but only four offer it at the Division I varsity level — Presbyterian College (SC), Sacred Heart University (CT), University of Iowa and Lindenwood University (MO).
“The more exposure, the better,” Fell said. “I think early on, girls saw other girls competing at the Olympic level and it got people talking. There’s really been an organic growth and it’s exploding now.”
Fell’s personal experience with wrestling is one he truly cherishes and he is happy to be passing down the skills he learned to a younger generation.
“It’s a sport that teaches skills that are hard to come by today,” he said. “You can teach a lot of really good life lessons through wrestling. It’s truly a beneficial sport for both men and women.”
Emery also sees the parallels between wrestling and the ups and downs of living life. When she first started wrestling five years ago, it was right around the time her mother, Crystal, was diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer.
She was given 13 months to live.
In January, Crystal hit the five-year mark and is part of less than five percent of people with the disease who survive that long.
“She’s a huge inspiration,” Emery said. “I don’t think I would have gotten involved with the sport as much as I did if it wasn’t for her. When we move to Kentucky, that’s when things were really rough for her. And that’s actually the year I joined wrestling. I kind of understood that wrestling and life are a lot alike. You can see the same fight.”
By Matthew Peaslee