Telling athletes that they “play like a girl” was once considered the ultimate insult. Now it’s a sign of pride, especially among women succeeding in sports long dominated by men — such as wrestling and boxing.
Wrestling has been practiced by women at least since the days of classical antiquity (when the women of Sparta were trained in the sport). Yet the ancient Olympic Games, launched in 776 B.C.E., only showcased men’s wrestling.
The modern Olympic Games, revived in Athens, Greece, in 1896, also focused on men’s wrestling. But in 2004, women’s freestyle wrestling was introduced as an Olympic sport.
At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Helen Maroulis made history as the first American woman to win a gold medal in wrestling. Competing in the 53-kilogram weight class, she defeated three-time Olympic champion Saori Yoshida of Japan by a score of 4-1.
Maroulis, who also won gold at the 2015 World Championships, had been successful since she was young. Even before wrestling in college, she was named “Most Outstanding Wrestler” at a secondary school tournament after pinning the boy who had won that title the year before.
Women’s collegiate and secondary school wrestling are on the rise in the United States, according to the National Wrestling Coaches Association. “Over the past 20 years, participation has exploded and now young girls are competing around the nation, and in most instances, they are very competitive with young boys,” the association said.
In Indianapolis, 16-year-old twin sisters Alise and Autumn Terhune are star wrestlers at their secondary school. The twins began wrestling at age 12 and demonstrated their talent within two years.
At age 14, the girls were co-captains of the boys’ wrestling team at their school, and their male teammates were supportive. However, their opponents weren’t always gracious. “The boys get pretty upset when [the girls] beat them,” the twins’ father, Josh Terhune, told the Indianapolis Star newspaper. “And they’ve beat a lot of boys.”
Ronda Rousey is another athlete who knows what it’s like to defy gender expectations. A professional mixed martial artist, she was the first American woman to win an Olympic medal in judo when she took bronze at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
Rousey practices a sport that combines the fighting techniques of wrestling, boxing, kickboxing, judo and karate. She’s a former Ultimate Fighting Championship Women’s Bantamweight champion, as well as the last Strikeforce Women’s Bantamweight champion.
In 2015, two magazines — Sports Illustrated and Business Insider — ranked Rousey as the most “dominant” active athlete, and later that year, voters in an online ESPN poll selected Rousey as the “Best Female Athlete Ever.”
“Fighting is not a man’s thing,” she said. “It is a human thing.”
Packing a knockout punch
Rousey’s words would certainly resonate with American boxers Laila Ali and Claressa Shields.
Ali, daughter of boxing legend Muhammad Ali, took up her father’s sport at 18. She was active from 1999–2007, retiring undefeated after winning five women’s super middleweight titles and a light heavyweight title.
Shields was motivated by Ali’s success to enter the boxing ring herself. She became the first American boxer — male or female — to win consecutive Olympic medals when she took gold in the women’s middleweight division at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.
Nicknamed T-Rex, Shields turned pro in 2016, and has won all five of her professional bouts. She currently holds three championship titles, and credits her grandmother with encouraging her to reject restrictions based on her gender.
It’s not just about fighting, though. Many other women have smashed barriers in traditionally male sports. Professional race-car driver Danica Patrick is the most successful woman in the history of American open-wheel racing, and in 1993, jockey Julie Krone became the first woman to win a Triple Crown horse race. These sportswomen are opening doors for the next generation of female athletes.