When Ashley Jaramillo says wrestling is in her blood, she means it.
Thanks to not only her father, but her mother as well, the junior at Vista PEAK Prep in Aurora has a strand in her DNA completely devoted to the sport.
Jaramillo had passed on it up until last year — choosing other sports like volleyball, soccer and tennis — but once the push began to make girls wrestling an officially sanctioned high school sport in Colorado, she jumped on board.
Now, she’s part of a wildfire sporting revolution that has created a much different landscape than the one known by her mom, Monique, who wrestled as a lone female in a virtually all-male sport at Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School in the 1990s.
“A big reason I got into it is because my mom was a wrestler in high school, my dad did it and my stepdad did it, so it kind of runs in the family,” Jaramillo said outside of the Vista PEAK wrestling room during practice Jan. 27.
“My mom will tell me ‘When I wrestled it was completely different, I had to wrestle all boys because there were no other girls to wrestle. So she’s extremely excited that I get to be a part of this and she gets to do this journey with me. She’s my biggest support system.”
The journey that Jaramillo and so many other girls across the country are on is one that has moved quickly and doesn’t appear to be stopping soon.
Colorado will join a growing number of states across the country — 20 at latest count (plus Guam) with more on the way — when it officially sanctions girls wrestling in the 2020-21 winter season. Girls wrestling, Unified Bowling and boys volleyball form a class of sanctioned sports that the Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSAA) hasn’t had since the late 1990s.
Pockets of girl wrestlers that competed on boys teams have existed for several years in the state, but the chance for girls to wrestle only other girls and have a state championship experience like the boys — that is expected to include the spotlight of a state tournament at the Pepsi Center next year — has brought girls out to the sport in droves.
The momentum is overwhelming for a sport that continues to break new ground on a regular basis. It’s been an offering at the Olympics since 2004, just gained Emerging Sport status from two divisions of the National Collegiate Athletic Association and has appeared on the radar of more and more girls.
The biggest challenges for organizers is keeping up with the demands it takes to accommodate the growth.
‘We are in full-on growth mode’
Veteran Eaglecrest wrestling coach Sparky Adair can quickly do the math on how much girls wrestling has grown in the past two years.
He’s seen it in his own gym.
The first girls-only tournament hosted by Eaglecrest back in 2018 began with 55 competitors, grew to 100 last year and swelled to 200 this season, providing a local demonstration of a nationwide trend that has seen overall participation in the sport grow to 21,124 girls nationwide as of 2019 — up from just 804 back in 1994 — according to numbers from the National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA).
“It exploded, literally,” Adair said. “We expected it to get bigger, but it got much bigger, much faster that we thought.”
The explosion caught organizers somewhat by surprise coming into the 2019-20 campaign — the second pilot season required by the CHSAA, the state’s governing prep athletic organization, before official sanctioning — but they have been able to make adjustments on the fly.
By the numbers coming in after just two tournaments, Adair immediately knew that the original plan for two one-day regional state qualifying tournaments that had worked last season would be insufficient to deal with the growth.
So organizers came up with a plan to hold three regional tournaments — which come Jan. 31-Feb. 1 at Chatfield, Douglas County and Fort Lupton high schools — that will last two days before the field for the state tournament at Thornton High School will be decided.
Adam Bright, the assistant commissioner for CHSAA who oversees wrestling, said the organization is pleased with the foundation that has been built for girls wrestling. CHSAA anticipates the growth to continue next season once it takes over operation of the sport.
“We are in full-on growth mode and we’re starting to look at what next year looks like,” Bright said.
“We’re not trying to play catch-up. Our expectation is we will have the same type of growth that we’ve seen last year to this year, so we will build with that anticipation. We’ll have a Plan A and a Plan B, so we can go with what works with the numbers we have.”
A total of 92 schools have confirmed at least one entry in the upcoming regionals and organizers expect to have a total of 375 entrants.
All of the Aurora programs — Cherokee Trail, Eaglecrest, Overland, Regis Jesuit and Vista PEAK — are headed to the regional at Chatfield that includes 35 confirmed teams that will be a mix of wrestlers from the Denver Metro area as well as some programs from the Western Slope, the primary outliers geographically.
The biggest surge in numbers seems to be with young wrestlers, as an increasing number of middle school programs and club teams have helped attract more to the sport and provided them the ability to come into high school with more of a base of experience than in the past.
“If you look at the number of tournament entries last year compared to this year, there’s clearly more,” said veteran coach Tim Corby, who works with the five girls in Vista PEAK’s room. “Some teams like Skyview and Fort Lupton have experienced great growth and have double digits, while the average team is still in the 4-6 range and there are still some with one or two.
“What we’re seeing now is the girls who came out when it was just a boys sport have held on because of their passion for the sport and those who saw last year that there was a girls-only division and came out because of that. It’s quite a mix.”
The reasons why girls gravitate towards wrestling are diverse.
Wrestling has long been a family sport on the boys side, with some programs such as Adams City featuring a long line of brothers that keep the family name alive for many, many years.
A great number girls who go out for wrestling had a brother or brothers that wrestled, so it was a natural progression, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to motivation.
In the Vista PEAK wrestling room — which features five girls in senior Elisa Abeyta, juniors Jaramillo, Daniela Aguirre Lares and Te’ovyon Jackson and freshman Leilani Caamal — the motivations are all completely different.
Abeyta, the acknowledged leader of a close-knit group, wrestled in middle school and came out for the boys varsity team when she arrived at Vista PEAK. She was emboldened by the fact that her older brother, Seth, was a senior and team captain and she soon realized she had a chance to establish a legacy of her own in the sport.
“I was wrestling before there was girls wrestling,” said Abeyta, who is already a two-time state participant and won a championship in 2018.
“I did so well in middle school that I would have come out for the team even if my brother wasn’t there, but I probably would have been more timid in the room,” she said. “It feels like I’ve started something here, which I’m really proud of.”
Aguirre Lares also had a brother who wrestled, but came out because none of the other sports offered at the school interested her.
She likes being out there on her own, but also enjoys the dual nature of the wrestling as it resembles other sports like tennis and golf where individual results contribute to a team end.
“I like how much of it depends on yourself,” Aguirre Lares said. “It’s a team sport, but it’s also individual. If you go out on the mat and lose, it’s on you and if you win it’s only on you.”
As previously mentioned, Jaramillo had a family connection to the sport which is how she ended up in it.
She had played volleyball, soccer and tennis and had run track at the school, but finally entered the wrestling room when the news that there would be girls-only wrestling.
Jackson admits she is never one to duck a challenge, so when she heard that wrestling wasn’t a girl thing, she decided to do something about it.
“Somebody told me that girls aren’t allowed to wrestle,” she said. “I’m one that always takes on a challenge. My mom is a single mom, so if someone tells me I can’t do something, I’m going to try it.”
Jackson has found more of a family atmosphere in the program than she could have imagined.
Caamal had the most different motivation of them all.
She’s played football for the past seven years — and suited up as a lineman on the Vista PEAK varsity team during the 2019 season — so wrestling is the closest thing she gets to hitting somebody off the football field.
“I like the contact of football and the aggression of the game, everything honestly,” Caamal said. “Wrestling is a great alternative to football, but it’s 1-on-1. You’re still on a team, but not when you are on the mat.”
The Vista PEAK group doesn’t just show up in the wrestling room, they keep the same hours as the boys team and go just as hard during training.
“None of us slack off,” Aguirre Lares said. “Even if we are sick, we come and watch everybody so we don’t miss anything. If you miss a day, you miss two moves and you have to catch up.”
Boys vs. girls
Boys and girls say they aren’t thrilled in general about wrestling each other, but they do it out of necessity and they’ve done it Colorado for several years.
Twelve girls have qualified for the boys state tournament all-time — the first back in 2006 according to CHSAA records — and the first two placed last season in Valley’s Angel Rios and Skyview’s Jaslynn Gallegos, who took fourth and fifth, respectively, in 3A.
For girls, it used to be the only option if they wanted to wrestle, but now it is a choice. Some of them still choose it, despite the inherent challenges.
Overland sophomore Katelynn Czerpak is in the midst of her second season wrestling for the boys varsity team and she relishes the toughness she gains, regardless of the result.
“Even though I’m a girl, boys have the mentality of ‘I don’t want to get beat,’ so they take it super hard on me,” said Czerpak, who is 7-13 wrestling at 106 or 113 pounds in boys matches, but has beaten the majority of girls she’s faced.
“It gives me a little bit more confidence when I go into girls tournaments knowing I was able to handle a boy,” she added.
Jaramillo had to wrestle boys last season — which she wasn’t thrilled about because she acknowledged that her upper body strength was lacking — but she made it through.
“I wrestled some of the JV EMAC matches against boys last season and I didn’t win, but I thought of it as conditioning,” she said. “I just tried to stay in there as long as I could and fight as much as possible.”
Abeyta has been wrestling against boys for many years and will never shy away from that challenge, but the physical differences between the sexes obviously makes for different results.
“I favor wrestling girls because it’s more of an even playing field in the sense that we’re structurally built the same and we’re pretty evenly matched,” she said. “With a boy in my weight class, I could be wrestling a 120-pounder and he’s 120 pounds of pure muscle, whereas a girls has natural fat she can’t control. So it’s a little bit more fair. I feel like it really shows what I can do as a wrestler.”
Help with the curve
The learning curve in wrestling is very steep (for both boys and girls) and can of be hard to navigate, especially with a disparity between those that have been wrestling since they were kids and those just starting out.
The atmosphere of girls wrestling in its early stages is one of camaraderie and mutual respect, which helps everybody improve.
While they always ask coaches for advice, most girls wrestlers don’t hesitate to ask an opponent to clue them in on what moves they used in certain situations and most are happy to oblige.
“At the last tournament we went to, there was a girl who got me in a cradle like twice and she told me ‘you kept lifting your leg,” Aguirre Lares said. “So now I know I have to stop lifting my leg up.”
Those are the types of things that boys wrestlers can learn at a junior varsity level, but that’s not a possibility yet for girls. If they come out for the team and stick with it, they find themselves thrown into the fire right away.
Corby is looking forward to the time where the numbers are high enough to form a developmental level that could really help the sport make gains at the top end.
“For a girl who is just learning the sport, it’s very hard to step into this arena with no junior varsity level,” Corby said. “We have a 161-pound freshman who came in and ran into the two-time defending state champion at least two times in the first two weeks. Keeping her focused and positive and trying to learn in that environment is difficult.
“When the sport gets sanctioned, there has to be attention to that developmental level, where new kids can come in and develop the technique and confidence they need. Given the nature of how this has been developing, it’s a sink or swim type of attitude. That being said, the amount of kids that have stuck with it through the season is impressive.”
Still, Adair has noted that he’s seen the quality of matches as a whole improve this season. Fewer are the 30-second pins — except for the truly elite in the sport — and more are the matches that make it into the second or third period.
“For me, looking at it from three or four years ago, the wrestling is much better now,” Adair said. “The girls have quickly adapted. There used to be a dominant group and a lot of fast pins without much technique. Now, we’re seeing longer matches and better technique.
“I imagine it’s like when volleyball began in the 1970s and now you see how athletic the players are and they can do it at a high level. It’s amazing to see how fast these girls are picking it up. Wrestling is a technical thing. You have to spend some years learning it.”
Big things ahead
The future continues to grow brighter for female wrestling, on a wide and narrow scale.
In the larger picture, a step towards its future took place on Jan. 25, when two NCAA divisions — II and III — voted to give women’s wrestling status as an Emerging Sport, while Division I is expected to consider doing the same at a later meeting.
The Emerging Sport designation means it is on the doorstep of being approved to contest official national championship tournaments.
Already, more than 70 colleges across the country have varsity female wrestling and more and more scholarships are becoming available.
On a local level, the girls will gain even more of a spotlight next year when sanctioning is official.
The girls have drawn considerable attendance over the past two years for their state tournament at Thornton High School — and figure to again for this year’s tournament Feb. 8-9 — official sanctioning brings an added benefit.
The plan is to add the girls state tournament into the boys championship weekend at the Pepsi Center in Downtown Denver, which is annually one of the biggest spectacles in high school sports.
This season’s boys state tournament is scheduled for Feb. 20-22, and Bright said a plan will begin to be formulate to give the girls their place in the spotlight.
“We’re going to meet a few times during the boys tournaments and see where our down times will be,” he said. “Once we identify those, we can look at how it will all come together.”
Another change for the future is likely to come in the number of weight classes, which currently stands at 14 for the boys and 10 for the girls. It should open up even more opportunities for girls to join.
Courtney Oakes is Sentinel Colorado Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. IG: Sentinel Prep Sports