A sport of their own

A high school wrestler from Kansas spent four years fighting to give girls the opportunity to compete in an official state sport.

(Illustration by Joseph Alessio for The Washington Post)

MCPHERSON, Kan.

She was awkward at sports that involved rackets, balls or any kind of equipment. And the middle school girls she considered friends picked on her instead.

Finally fed up with being bullied, Mya Kretzer looked for a new crowd in seventh grade and found it in wrestling, a sport that ran through her family like strong winds whip through Kansas.

She loved wrestling’s demands: the discipline and commitment required to control an opponent using only skill, technique and grit. And if she had to practice and compete against sweaty boys, the chance to wrestle was worth it, she decided.

But no matter how much she improved, Kretzer soon realized she would never have a realistic chance to become a state champion.

She could compete and enter any tournament she chose. But because Kansas didn’t recognize girls’ wrestling as an official sport, she would have to beat the best boys in her weight class to win a state title — a virtual impossibility given the greater strength and muscle mass boys tend to develop as they get older.

What girls needed, she believed, was to have a sport of their own. Achieving that goal came to define her high school wrestling career.

“Wrestling gives you what you need to be successful,” Kretzer explained. “It gives you dedication, commitment. It gives you somewhere where you belong. You can be your own self and be a total badass.”

Change Agents

About this series: Female athletes are speaking out, demanding a more level playing field with their male counterparts even as they continue to train and excel in their sports.

Equity: The U.S. women's soccer team files suit for equal pay and working conditions.

Opportunity: In Kansas, girls didn't have a wrestling championship of their own. Mya Kretzer changed that.

Exposure: Claressa Shields keeps winning boxing titles. But she is still fighting for visibility.

Kretzer’s campaign to make girls’ wrestling an official high school sport in Kansas — as it already was in California, Texas and 12 other states — began four years ago on a wrestling mat in McPherson, a town of 13,077 in central Kansas. But it speaks more broadly to female athletes’ ongoing struggle everywhere for full-fledged opportunity nearly a half century after the passage of Title IX, the federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex at schools that receive federal funds.

There’s no question Title IX revolutionized sports participation among girls and women in the United States. Since its passage in 1972, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, the number of girls playing high school sports has grown more than 11-fold, from 294,000 in 1971 to 3.4 million last year.

“Without Title IX, we simply would not be here after decades and decades and decades of being told girls weren’t interested in sports or wouldn’t be very good if they played,” said Mary Jo Kane, director of the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport. “What we have found is that girls and women are deeply interested in playing sports if they are given an opportunity.”

For decades, however, female athletes have had to battle a hostile culture, if not outright bans, for that opportunity. Kretzer was hardly the first to lead the fight.

Mya Kretzer’s campaign to make girls’ wrestling an official high school sport in Kansas began four years ago on a wrestling mat in McPherson. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Breaking barriers

In 1967, distance runner ­Kathrine Switzer defied the Boston Marathon's ban on female competitors with a brazen act, entering the race as simply "K.V." Switzer.

Once an official spotted her in the field of men, he lunged and tried to pull her off the course. But Switzer’s boyfriend, running alongside, shoved him aside, enabling her to finish the 26.2-mile distance.

Nonetheless, women’s marathon didn’t become an Olympic sport until 1984 — and only after the American College of Sports Medicine concluded there was no scientific or medical evidence that long-distance running posed health risks to trained female athletes.

In 2008, female ski jumpers filed a lawsuit for the right to compete in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics after years of being denied a place in the Winter Games for reasons that kept changing.

“My favorite one is that [ski jumping] would damage our reproductive organs,” recalled ­Jessica Jerome of Park City, Utah, now 32, who was among the 15 international plaintiffs.

In 2009, the Supreme Court of British Columbia found that the athletes had been discriminated against but didn’t compel the International Olympic Committee to add women’s ski jumping to the Vancouver Games. Its debut came at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, where Jerome placed 10th, the top-finishing American.

Heading into the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, female ski jumpers still don’t have the same opportunity to compete as men. They’re restricted to the smaller of two jumps, while men can also compete on a hill that’s roughly 100 feet taller.

There’s a similar inequity in Olympic racewalking. While men compete at the 50-kilometer and 20-kilometer distances, women are restricted to the 20-kilometer distance.

Veteran American racewalker Erin Taylor-Talcott has pushed for an opportunity to contest the 50 kilometers in the Olympics for years only to be told that women aren’t strong or fast enough to complete the distance in less than four hours. The argument: that allowing women in the race would create a logistical headache and that not enough women are interested anyway.

“Build it, and they will come,” Taylor-Talcott, who lives in Owego, N.Y., has countered.

As the international Court of Arbitration for Sport considers a formal complaint on the inequity in the run-up to next summer’s Olympics in Tokyo, Taylor-Talcott continues training for a 50-kilometer race she may never get to contest while fending off personal attacks about her advocacy on social media.

Her husband hails her as a pioneer in the tradition of ­Kathrine Switzer. Taylor-Talcott won’t go that far. “I’m just me,” she said. “I’m just Erin who likes to racewalk. Why won’t you let me race 50K?”

The common thread in all these battles, Kane said, is the deep-seated cultural link between sports and maleness. For men and boys, the opportunity to play sports is a given, she said; for women and girls, it has been anything but.

“Until very recently, females were stigmatized for having an interest in sports — and especially for having an interest in sports that have been closely identified with maleness,” Kane said. “It makes logical sense, given that ideological structure and tradition of sports, that girls, as any minority group, constantly have to fight and re-fight battles for equality. Think about the energy that is expended by them to overcome the barriers put in their place.”

Small-town life goes on in McPherson, with a population of about 13,000 in central Kansas. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Total commitment

Mya Kretzer has no shortage of energy on the topic of wrestling.

In the crowded hallways of a high school, she might seem unremarkable — a girl of average height, at 5-foot-4, with blue-green eyes and a passion for glitter-red nail polish. But she can squat 200 pounds and bench press 118, just shy of her body weight. She has cultivated her inner warrior since she was 12.

“You can get this negativity loop in your head over trying to be what other people want you to be or trying to impress people. That’s a lot of what young girls think about, instead of being your own self,” said Kretzer, now 18. “Wrestling allows you to find yourself. With your wins and losses, you get to reflect and try to develop yourself into something better. It’s not something you practice a few hours; it’s a 24/7, full commitment. The struggles in wrestling help you with the struggles outside of wrestling.”

Wrestling gives Kretzer purpose, just as it did her father, her two elder brothers and her twin brother, all of whom wrestled for McPherson High. It also gave her the personal motto that’s tattooed on her left forearm, “On a mission,” and inspired the ­clipper-ship tattoo on her left calf that reminds her she’s the captain of her own ship.

To that end, she logs her daily fitness routine in the wrestling journals she has kept for years. A recent entry included 150 sit-ups, 100 push-ups, 50 pull-ups, 100 bicycle crunches and 200 squats.

Wrestling dictates her meals, daily water consumption and regimen of vitamins C and B12 and CBD oil. It’s also a prerequisite for would-be boyfriends. “And they have to be my size, so I can wrestle them,” she said. “And I’m not kidding.”

“Wrestling allows you to find yourself. With your wins and losses, you get to reflect and try to develop yourself into something better.”

Mya Kretzer Wrestler from McPherson, Kansas

Her bedroom is filled with wrestling trophies, medals, plaques, posters and her red-and-white McPherson Bullpups letter jacket covered with patches commemorating her powerlifting records, podium finishes and three victories in an unofficial state championship for girls.

Though plenty of girls in McPherson come from wrestling families and tried the sport as children at a local club, most give it up in adolescence. Kretzer’s freshman year, she was one of just three girls on McPherson’s wrestling team.

The isolation was tough, at times.

At meets, where she wrestled boys if there were no girls in her weight class, she’d often have to hunt for a closet or vacant referee’s office to use as a changing room because the girls’ locker room was locked. Stepping onto the mat, she felt every skeptical eye on her. Worse, she couldn’t show the offensive skills she’d mastered because all her strength had to go into defense against boys who wrestled twice as hard against her to avoid being ridiculed for losing to a girl.

In so many ways, she felt this wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair to girls, who generally couldn’t match the muscle mass of equal-sized boys. And it wasn’t fair to boys, who faced three options: throttle a girl, default if they felt uneasy about wrestling a girl or get mocked by their peers if they lost.

So as captain of her wrestling ship, Kretzer took on double duty her freshman year, determined to grow girls’ wrestling at McPherson and prove to the Kansas State High School Activities Association that there was enough interest to make girls’ wrestling an official sport in the state.

Her father, Doug Kretzer, who continues to juggle his job at an oil refinery with coaching McPherson’s wrestling team, vowed to do all he could to help.

“Until they have the ability to always compete against other females, we’re leaving tons of girls out who aren’t in the sport that otherwise might be,” he said.

With the backing of the school’s athletic director, Shane Backhus, the Kretzers developed a plan to bolster the ranks. They started with a simple idea: Get each girl on the team to recruit one other girl.

Kretzer, 18, straightens a plaque on her bedroom wall. In her freshman year, she was one of just three girls on McPherson’s wrestling team. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Key to their pitch was a promotional video produced by Wrestle Like a Girl, a nonprofit organization founded by sports advocate Sally Roberts, a decorated former wrestler and Army combat veteran. The video features footage of girls of all ages and shapes training and competing, with a voice-over describing the traits of female wrestlers: “She is a dreamer, a trend setter, a barrier breaker. Powerful. Confident. Bold. Courageous.”

It hooked Morgan Jones, who attended a wrestling team meeting at Mya Kretzer’s urging, saw the video and joined the squad. Jones said her confidence was shaky at that point, after she had idled on the bench much of her time on the McPherson girls’ basketball team. Through wrestling, she said, she gained a new sense of her ability. She started speaking up more in class and set her sights on becoming a firefighter.

“If I could wrestle with all these guys and keep up with them, I feel like I can run into a burning building and help ­people,” Jones said.

Meanwhile, Kretzer did all she could to win a state title — including shedding 20 pounds her junior year. She added swimming and cross-country to her workouts and eliminated nearly everything but fried eggs from her diet in hopes that competing at 106 pounds would give her a chance.

Kretzer plays with her nephew Emett while swimming after dinner on a summer evening. Her high school career was cut short by a torn ACL she suffered during a tournament in Oklahoma. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

She joined her father at high school wrestling coaching ­seminars around the state. He led breakout sessions on the potential of girls’ wrestling to grow the sport’s ranks and she followed with a personal appeal, looking each coach in the eye and asking him to promise to work with any girl who wanted to wrestle.

Backhus, McPherson’s athletic director, made a similar pitch to his peers, with a goal of getting 24 Kansas high schools to offer girls’ wrestling.

“When we sat down and started thinking about it and looked at every other sport, we don’t make the girls run against the boys in the 100-meter dash,” Backhus said. “We don’t make the girls play the boys during tennis season or compete against them in swim meets. It just made perfect sense.”

McPherson went a step further in 2017, hosting an unofficial Kansas state girls’ wrestling championship in the school’s storied Roundhouse gymnasium. The first year, 56 girls took part. The next year, 135. And last year, more than 220 competed.

The growth mirrored a national trend, according to Mike ­Moyer, executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches ­Association.

“What we have found is, typically high school wrestling grows a lot faster when girls are competing against other girls and boys are competing against other boys,” Moyer said. “The challenge is, until you have enough critical mass, there is no alternative to having girls compete with boys. The quicker we can get to critical mass of young girls wrestling in every state, the quicker the growth will be accelerated.”

For Kretzer, making wrestling an official girls’ high school sport in Kansas seemed an obvious solution — though it would take until this April, just weeks before her graduation, for the state high school activities association to finally consider doing so.

Kretzer jokes around with one of her brothers as the family prepares dinner. “Wrestling helps you find yourself,” she says. “. . . The struggles in wrestling help you with the struggles outside of wrestling.” (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Time for the vote

Kretzer was excused early from school — skipping classes in medical technology and public speaking — to make the two-hour drive to Topeka with her father to attend the vote.

Her own high school wrestling career was over, her postseason cut short by a torn ACL suffered in a tournament in Oklahoma. She hobbled into the packed boardroom with an ankle-to-thigh brace stabilizing her surgically repaired left knee and took a seat in the section reserved for observers.

All stood for the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by a roll call of the school principals, athletic directors, coaches and administrators on the board of directors. With 65 present, 33 votes were needed to pass a proposal, and nearly 30 proposals were on the agenda.

Keeping quiet wasn’t easy in the cramped, low-ceilinged board room. Kretzer muttered under her breath and fidgeted in her seat, clutching her silenced cellphone so she could blast the result to her McPherson teammates back home. And when the wrestling proposal finally came up, two hours into the proceedings, she gritted her teeth.

Doug Kretzer was asked to introduce the motion on girls’ wrestling, and he reviewed data about its growth in Kansas, as well as in neighboring Missouri, where the number of female wrestlers jumped from 171 to more than 900 after the state sanctioned a high school postseason series for girls.

Debate followed, mainly about the wording of the resolution rather than its merits, and Kretzer could keep silent no more. She feared the discussion had bogged down in granular details and that the main point — what was fair for girls — was getting lost.

“Can I just say someth . . .” she blurted out before being shushed by her father.

Several adults turned and stared, then resumed their discussion. It felt like an eternity.

Kretzer had spent her entire high school years working for just this moment — and now the moment felt like years. Finally, they called for a vote.

When those in favor were asked to raise their hands, she looked up and scanned the room. Her face flushed red; her expression contorted.

The room was a sea of raised hands. The proposal passed, 63-2.

Her mind went blank, and tears fell.

“Happy tears?” she was asked at a whisper.

She took a breath, suddenly flooded with conflicting emotions.

She had accomplished so much; she was so grateful for the overwhelming support. But she would never benefit. She would never win a state title and have her name listed alongside those of McPherson’s past champions in the school’s wrestling room. Maybe, she thought, her daughters would one day.

“Hard tears,” she whispered.

(Mya Kretzer is now a freshman at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kan., where she’s sitting out the 2019-20 wrestling season after undergoing a second knee surgery. She still aspires to qualify for USA Wrestling’s world and Olympic teams.)

Liz Clarke

Liz Clarke has covered nine Olympics, three World Cups and written extensively about college sports, tennis and auto racing. She has also covered the Washington Redskins for eight seasons.

Toni L. Sandys

Toni Sandys is a photographer at The Washington Post, primarily covering sports at all levels -- high school, college, professional.

Additional credits

Design and development by Virginia Singarayar. Illustration by Joseph Alessio. Photo editing by Thomas Simonetti.

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