Heaven Fitch’s story couldn’t have been scripted much better than it has actually played out.
In February 2020, then 16-year-old Fitch made history, becoming the first girl to win a state wrestling championship in North Carolina, compiling a 54-4 record in the 106-pound weight class in the process. Fitch became just the seventh girl nationwide to win a state wrestling championship competing against boys.
Fitch’s historic victory — a year after she became the first girl to even place at the state-wide tournament — became one of the biggest local sports stories in North Carolina and seemed bound for national attention, but, as the global COVID-19 pandemic sank its teeth into our lives, the spotlight shifted dramatically and Fitch’s story got pushed aside.
Now, a year after her groundbreaking win, Fitch’s journey will get the treatment it deserves as WWE is airing a documentary about the barrier-breaking teen.
Titled “Heaven,” the 22-minute short film offers insight into Fitch’s rise from amateur wrestling prodigy to bonafide champion. It’s the first time WWE has produced a documentary that focuses on an athlete outside of its company or the world of professional wrestling.
“I knew that Heaven won the state championships last year because I live in Asheville, N.C. and it was all over the local media outlets,” Elizabeth Copeland, also known in WWE as Beth Phoenix, told Yahoo Sports. “I help advocate for “Wrestle Like a Girl” which works to get girls' wrestling sanctioned in every single state, so I kind of follow the amateur wrestling scene with young women. I had heard of Heaven’s story but then the pandemic hit and that became the forefront of the media and I feel like her story got lost in the shuffle.”
'There are so many parallels [to what I experienced]'
Copeland, who narrates the documentary, was in Fitch’s shoes more than two decades prior. In the 1990s, Copeland was the sole female member of her high school’s boys wrestling team in upstate New York, facing many of the same challenges that Fitch does now.
The documentary looks briefly at the psychological challenges both Fitch and the boys she wrestles face. Fitch’s presence on the mat has led to opponents underestimating her, trying to overexert themselves against her and even fearing losing to her, all because of her gender.
Working on the project stirred up some familiar feelings for Copeland.
“There are so many parallels [to what I experienced],” Copeland said. “There’s people underestimating you, questioning your intentions — wondering if you’re attention-seeking or why you are making this choice [to wrestle]. You cannot also underestimate the pressure, the awkwardness and the difficulty for the boys involved too. This is all uncharted territory for them, too. Having a female on the team, it was a tough spot for everybody to be in.”
How amateur wrestling could open doors to higher learning
Situations like the ones Copeland and Fitch experienced are not unique, however. Having to compete alongside and against boys is the reality for many female amateur wrestlers as just 26 states have sanctioned girls' high school wrestling as of June 2020. While elite-level athletes like Fitch are able to gain recognition with their ability to compete and win against male opponents, many girls in states where the sport remains unsanctioned face an uphill battle when it comes to advancing their athletic careers.
“A girl like Heaven is kind of an anomaly,” Copeland said. “Ideally, the long-term goal would be to find a way to get equal opportunity teams and the girls to have their own team. The biggest point of that would be that getting girls wrestling sanctioned in each state then provides the opportunity for scholarships. Unless you’re Heaven and you can beat all of the boys, it’s hard to be in competition in a non-sanctioned state for collegiate wrestling scholarship. That could open the door for someone who doesn’t have the financial means to pursue a college degree or a vocation.”
Apart from the potential monetary benefits, there are mental upsides to the push for fully sanctioned girls wrestling. Copeland believes it would go a long way in helping both adolescent boys and girls deal with the psychology of either sharing a locker room with the opposite sex or having to compete against one another. In addition, parents’ fears about injury risks — a topic Copeland faced and Fitch’s parents discuss in the documentary — would be mitigated.
“If they want that opportunity, they should be afforded it,” Copeland said. “It also eliminates a lot of the awkwardness and challenges of having two genders wrestle each other, especially at the adolescent stage. There’s a lot of stress, pressure and hormones and I know that is where the struggle is.
“Even from the parents’ perspective, my mom was really hesitant and afraid I was going to get hurt because typically an adolescent boy would have a strength advantage over a girl. When I heard Heaven’s parents speak about that and saw the same concerns that my mom did, it really resonated with me.”
'There is a new type of role model'
There’s hope that getting Fitch’s story out to a wider audience will give girls another positive athlete role model that previous generations did not have. Copeland, growing up in the 1980s and 90s yearned somewhat for a dominant, physical female figure in popular culture. Although she cites Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia and Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman characters as influences, female athletes were not celebrated in the same mainstream fashion they are today.
“What I love about today’s world and a young lady like Heaven is that there is a new type of role model,” Copeland said. “There’s been an advancement and now women are seen as athletes and presented as athletes. Let’s take away the sexuality part of it. It’s not a beauty contest, we are there to see who is the better competitor. It took a lot of fighting over the years, but I think we’re finally there.”
Copeland, whose physically dominating Phoenix character competed against both men and women during her WWE tenure, helped push forward women’s professional wrestling. For many girls, Copeland became one of the athletic female role models that she herself lacked growing up. Now, nearly a decade removed from being a full-time, in-ring performer, Copeland looks to a new generation of role models like Fitch, particularly for her two young daughters.
“I can see it in Heaven. I can tell she’s very proud of herself and very happy,” Copeland said. “That reads, so when I see her reactions and I see her hand being raised when she won, that’s inspiring. If you can inspire the majority of those who you are in front of, that’s a gift. I don’t want my daughters to have one singular figure to look up to, I want them to be surrounded by them. If they are surrounded by positive female role models, it’s not going to be the exception, it’s going to become the norm and that’s really the point.”
Set to air this Sunday, the documentary’s debut falls right in the middle of Women’s History Month and weeks before Fitch’s senior season at Uwharrie Charter Academy begins. If Fitch were to repeat as the champion in the 106-pound weight class, she would make even more history and become the first girl ever to win two state wrestling titles in the U.S.
Win or lose, however, Copeland is confident that Fitch’s star will continue to shine bright.
“Apart from her physical talents, Heaven has a great personality and she has handled all of this attention — both negative and positive — with such grace,” Copeland said. “She’s the type of woman, that if this is what she wants, she will get it.”
“Heaven” is available to stream for free starting Sunday, March 7 on the WWE Network, YouTube and Facebook.