'They're as tough as anybody': As women's wrestling is on the rise nationwide, Spokane hosts this year's national championships

Apr. 13—As 15-year-old Raenah Smith looked around at the thousands of women and girls filling the Podium in Spokane, all there to wrestle in the U.S. Marine Corps Women's National Championships, she marveled at how the sport has given her trailblazing female role models in a male-dominated sport.

"I look up to a lot of the college women wrestling right now," Raenah said at the tournament on Friday. "And I want to be like them."

Raenah is home-schooled, but wrestles for Mead High School. She's competing this week in the championship but has wrestled girls and boys since age 9. In the last six years, she's seen the sport grow significantly, she said at the tournament on Friday. No longer are girls wrestling only boys; they're able to have a tournament to themselves.

"I try my best against boys. They're stronger. It's hard. But it gives me a sense of confidence because you're beating someone bigger," she said.

Women's wrestling is the fastest-growing high school sport in the United States, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations. The number of high school girls who competed in wrestling more than quintupled from 2013 to 2023, growing from 6,545 to over 50,000. The championships hosted in Spokane span eight divisions, ranging from age 7 to 23.

Champions in the four age divisions this weekend are eligible to earn a spot on Team USA for the Pan-Am and World championships later this summer.

"This tournament has been going on for so long. But every single year it grows, and so does women's wrestling," 21-year-old Yele Aycock said, just as she stepped off the mat after winning her first round. Women and girls fly in from around the country just to be part of the championship. Some were sporting shirts from Iowa, California, Montana, Idaho and more.

Aycock is competing in Spokane from North Central College in Illinois, but she's from a small town in New Mexico — a town that never had girls and women's wrestling tournaments.

"Coming from there where there's no girls tournaments, to here, where it's all women's wrestling and we're taking up 18 mats — I think it's super cool," she said. "It's amazing to see."

Aycock and Smith both grew up watching their brothers wrestle. And they both knew they could do it, too.

"I think it's a really big confidence booster where, maybe you lose a match to a guy just because he's a lot bigger. But when you win a match, it's because you're just better at wrestling," Aycock said. "Now that women are wrestling women, it's really a show of skill and how good you are at the sport."

With more than 70 schools intending to sponsor the sport in 2023-24, the National Collegiate Athletic Association announced plans in February for its first women's wrestling championship in 2026.

This is the second time the city has hosted this event. In 2022, Spokane was selected as the host city for the championships for three consecutive years starting in 2023.

"Last year we had 1,473 athletes, and this year we already have 1,520 athletes registered. Registration doesn't even close until Friday," said Cherie Gwinn, senior director of events with Spokane Sports.

The increase isn't surprising, given national trends.

"It's certainly exceeded our expectations," Gwinn said of the increase in registration, "I think it shows how strong women's wrestling is here in Washington state, but specifically West Coast."

After California and Illinois, Washington has the highest number of female wrestlers, Gwinn said.

"I think that's the true compilation of just how hard we work to recognize women in sports," Gwinn said.

Rogers High School girls wrestling coach Whitney Bowerman is seeing the same thing here in Spokane, she said. Even in middle school, it's "just been blowing up."

Bowerman said she tries to promote the sport for many reasons, but mostly the confidence it brings young girls.

"It's empowering. It doesn't matter what weight you're at, you have space in the sport," she said. "There's a lot of managing of weight rather than forcing them to lose weight so they can feel better in your body. And it improves their confidence not just physically, but in the classroom. Last year, teachers would say they saw a difference within the season of the girls raising their hands more and being more outspoken."

Mead High School wrestling coach Phil McLean, who's been coaching for 35 years, said the growth in women's and girl's wrestling comes from the exposure. A college team came to work out at Mead just before the tournament, and seven girls sat around to watch and admire, said McLean, who coaches boys and girls.

"These are girls that can absolutely compete on a guy's level," McLean said. "Guys aren't so worried about their pride. Both do the same workout. It gains respect because it's a tough sport. If the girls can make it through, the guys say they're as tough as anybody."

Gwinn had a few theories for why women's wrestling has taken off in recent years. One is that it reflects the growth of women's sports in general.

"I think for women in general the opportunity for sports overall has increased, and you're seeing it on live TV now," Gwinn said, pointing to this year's record breaking interest in women's college basketball. "They're getting recognized for their play, and it's becoming something that is sought after and not just the secondhand thought."

In 2007, Washington became the third state in the country to sanction a statewide high school championship for women's wrestling, according to USA Wrestling. Today, there are 44. Recognition from organizations like the NCAA has helped too, Gwinn said.

"As you start to see these national associations recognizing it, it's only going to build a stronger case," she said.

Events like the USA Wrestling's Women's National Championship are also important, Gwinn said, and Spokane Sports is happy to be involved.

"It's an exciting time to be hosting women's sports in general. Women's wrestling, it's on the rise, and so to be on the forefront of it, it's an honor for our city to be a part of it," she said.

As of late Friday morning, Smith had won two matches and lost the other. She said the goal is to "improve, improve, improve."

"I'm excited because the girls are getting really good," Smith said. "It makes me work harder. It motivates me."

Roberta Simonson's reporting is part of the Teen Journalism Institute, funded by Bank of America with support from the Innovia Foundation.