To Brendan Johnston, it was a simple choice. The 18-year-old senior wrestler from The Classical Academy in Colorado had never competed against a girl, and faced with the option to do so and potentially move one round closer to his goal of winning a state title, he instead decided to forfeit.
For one of the two would-be female opponents Johnston refused to face in the Colorado state wrestling championships last weekend, it was a frustrating outcome. She said she understood and respected his decision but questioned why any wrestler, of any gender, would decide to forfeit in the state tournament after making it so far. Johnston cited personal and religious beliefs for not wanting to wrestle a girl.
“My whole thing is that I’m not a girl wrestler; I’m just a wrestler,” said Jaslynn Gallegos, a senior at Skyview High. “So it kind of doesn’t hurt my feelings, but I do kind of take it to heart.”
In a situation that got national attention, Johnston’s refusal to wrestle a female competitor disappointed and frustrated many at a time when girls’ participation in the sport continues to rise across the country. While incidents such as these are rare, it’s a scenario that is being confronted more frequently with the growth of women’s wrestling.
“There is something that I really do find problematic about the idea of wrestling with a girl, and a part of that does come from my faith and my belief,” said Johnston, who identifies as Christian and said he attends the International Anglican Church in Colorado Springs. “And a part of that does come from how I was raised to treat women as well as maybe from different experiences and things.”
Johnston, who has never wrestled a girl since he picked up the sport in seventh grade, has said that the physical aggression required in wrestling isn’t something he is comfortable showing toward a girl, on or off the mat. He declined to wrestle Gallegos in the first round of the state tournament in the Class 3A 106-pound bracket. He then decided to forfeit against Angel Rios, a junior at Valley High, in the third round of consolations, effectively ending his high school wrestling career.
“This whole time that I’ve wrestled, it’s just me trying to prove a point that I am just a wrestler,” Gallegos said. “And so the fact that my gender is something that kind of holds me back still is just a little nerve-racking, but I respect his decision. It’s fine.”
Rios went on to place fourth at the tournament. Gallegos placed fifth after Johnston’s early-round forfeit. It was the first time a girl had placed at a Colorado state wrestling tournament. Girls’ wrestling is not a sanctioned sport in the state, so girls have the right to participate alongside boys at the state tournament. There is a pilot program that allows for a female state wrestling bracket, but Rios and Gallegos decided they wanted to compete against boys.
Wrestling’s popularity is increasing among high school girls, with nearly 17,000 participating nationwide, according to Amy Zirneklis, deputy director for Wrestle Like A Girl, a nonprofit organization that aims to empower girls and women through the sport.
“We are entering the phase where coaches, parents and athletes are becoming a little more used to it,” Zirneklis said. “We got a little ways to go, but I think across the board … acceptance has transcended expectations.”
Twelve states recognize girls’ wrestling as an official, sanctioned high school sport. At the college level, there are no NCAA Division I women’s wrestling teams — Presbyterian College in South Carolina will have the first, with its inaugural season set for 2019 — but there are 38 colleges across all divisions that field a women’s wrestling team and compete as part of the Women’s Collegiate Wrestling Association.
“We believe that undoubtedly we are going to continue to encounter scenarios where athletes are going to make decisions from their comfort level really until the environments, the educational systems and the culture of the sport of wrestling advances to a point where any athlete and all athletes who choose to wrestle becomes normalized,” Zirneklis said. “We’re not there yet, but the sport itself has made huge advances in recent years.”
Johnston had refused to wrestle girls before the state tournament. He declined to wrestle Rios multiple times this season, with all of the matches resulting in forfeits. Rios’s mother, Cher, expressed her daughter’s disappointment to Johnston’s mother earlier in the season, according to the Denver Post.
“It’s his decision, and I understand that if it’s against his religion,” Rios told the Greeley (Colo.) Tribune. “I have no control over the situation, so if that’s what he chooses to do, then that’s on him, I guess.”
Last year in the state tournament, Johnston declined to face a different female wrestler, Cayden Condit, in the consolation rounds. He had spent about an hour or two late into the night talking with his coach about what to do, and in the end, he decided to stick with his beliefs.
“Last year at state it kind of became, not just a bigger choice, but also like, ‘Is this really something I am willing to stick to when it counts?' I guess,” Johnston said. “And for me, that was important enough that it is the decision I made.”
This year, winning the state tournament had been his goal. He completed a successful senior campaign, but when he got to the state tournament and realized he had to face Gallegos and Rios, he knew his goal was off the table.
“I don’t think that I am looking at them as not equal,” Johnston said of Gallegos and Rios. “I am saying that they are women and that is different than being men, because I do believe that men and women are different and we are made differently. But I still believe that women are of equal value to men. I don’t think that seeing men and women as different … [opposes] the idea of equality.”
Gallegos, who started wrestling when she was 5, said Johnston’s actions weren’t shocking because forfeits by boys happened often when she was younger. And even if Johnston didn’t want to wrestle, she knows other boys will. Proving them wrong is what she likes to do.
“You walk around before the match, and you hear [the boys say], ‘Oh, it’s just a girl; I got this,’" Gallegos said. “And then after the match they come up to me and they’re like, ‘You’re really good!’ And it’s really funny actually.”
As for Johnston, he said that if he had the chance to do it all over again, he would.
“Even though it wasn’t exactly how I wanted things to go, it was a good way to end my high school career,” he said. “I would keep it all the same.”