Iowa to become first Power Five school to add women's wrestling program

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Get ready, wrestling fans: women's wrestling is officially coming to the University of Iowa.

The Des Moines Register has learned that Iowa is adding a women's wrestling program to its athletics department. The Hawkeyes will be the first Division I Power Five school to offer women's wrestling.

Gary Barta, Iowa's athletic director, and Tom Brands, Iowa's men's wrestling coach, will hold a press conference to provide more details this morning in Iowa City. The Register also learned that a women's coach won't be hired until the spring. The team will start competing during the 2023-24 season.

This is a monumental step forward — for Iowa, for the continued growth of women's wrestling at the college level, and for the sport of wrestling at large.

This decision has been a long time coming for Iowa. Barta said last year the school is interested in a women’s team. The program recently fundraised for a new facility big enough for two programs. The Hawkeye Wrestling Club also just added three women’s freestyle wrestlers to its roster, in Victoria Francis, Jordan Nelson and Rachel Watters.

All of it led to Thursday's monumental announcement, which Mike Moyer, the executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association, called a "game-changer."

Iowa wrestling has won 24 all-time NCAA team titles, the second most in NCAA history and its most recent coming in 2021. The Hawkeyes have led the nation in wrestling attendance each of the last 14 seasons — and that’s not counting the 2021 season, which was hampered by COVID-19.

A general view as introductions take place during a NCAA Big Ten Conference wrestling dual between the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Nebraska Cornhuskers, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.
A general view as introductions take place during a NCAA Big Ten Conference wrestling dual between the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Nebraska Cornhuskers, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

That college wrestling’s most visible and one of its most successful programs is adding women’s wrestling is perhaps the biggest splash in what’s been an ongoing and rapid rise of girls’ and women’s wrestling around the country.

There are now over 100 colleges that have added women’s wrestling programs nationwide, including over 40 at the NCAA level. That number is important, as women’s wrestling is considered an emerging sport by the NCAA at the Division I, II and III levels. NCAA bylaws say a sport needs 40 varsity NCAA programs, at minimum, to gain full championship status.

Iowa is only the third NCAA Division I school to add women’s wrestling, joining Presbyterian College in South Carolina and Sacred Heart University in Connecticut. The Hawkeyes are the seventh Iowa school to add it: Iowa Wesleyan is also an NCAA program; Waldorf, Grand View and William Penn are all in the NAIA; and Indian Hills and Iowa Western are junior colleges.

A handful of other Power Five schools have readied themselves to add women’s wrestling programs, but the Hawkeyes were the first to pull the trigger, and it positions them to strike early on the upcoming wave of talented wrestlers that will soon be available in recruiting.

This past summer, the United States won team titles at the Cadet and Junior women’s freestyle world championships. The Cadet team had three gold-medalists and four more win bronze, while the Junior team had five total medalists, including four win gold. Many of those girls are high-schoolers, and Iowa is already eyeing many as recruiting targets.

Overall, USA Wrestling’s female membership has increased more than 70 percent over the last two years. The overall nationwide participation numbers of girls’ wrestling has nearly doubled between 2014-15, when 11,5496 girls wrestled, to 2018-19, when 21,124 girls wrestled. That’s according to stats kept by the National Federation of State High School Associations.

As many as 32 state high school associations either sponsor girls’ wrestling or recognize a girls’ wrestling state championship. Before 2019, there were only six. Iowa does not fall under this category because the girls’ state championships are hosted by the Iowa Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association instead of the Iowa Girls’ High School Athletic Union.

Iowa’s statewide girls’ wrestling participation has grown quickly, from 67 total five years ago, per the NFHS, to 683 in the ’20-21 season, per Trackwrestling. Four Iowa girls earned All-American honors at the 16U and Junior women’s freestyle national championships in July. Eight Iowa girls are ranked in USA Wrestling’s latest high school girls’ wrestling national rankings.

A lot of this nationwide momentum began after the 2016 Olympics, when Helen Maroulis became the first American woman to win Olympic gold in women's wrestling. The U.S. women's wrestling program then won four medals at the 2020 Olympics. The U.S. only had five all-time Olympic medalists in women's wrestling before Tokyo.

The Hawkeyes have a rich history when it comes to developing wrestlers into national champions and Olympic medalists. With a women's program now on the way, they can start producing world-class women's wrestlers in Iowa City, too.

Follow Cody Goodwin on Twitter at @codygoodwin.

This article originally appeared on Hawk Central: Iowa to become first Power Five school to add women's wrestling team