Head high, I walked into a gym crowded with 250 boys waiting for the first session of wrestling camp to begin.
The words came organically to Julia Ernst as she hunkered down to write the essay that would accompany most of her college applications. The prompt asked her to identify a place where she feels perfectly content, calm, in control. And in her mind, the answer was clear.
I shook off the stares and joined the group warm-up, she wrote. During my drill with my partner, hitting my single-leg attack felt like coming home.
Ernst is a senior wrestler at Georgetown Day, a three-year team captain and two-time National Preps qualifier who will attend Harvard. On Wednesday, she matched a school record with her 103rd career win. On Saturday, she will try to break that record and claim her third consecutive D.C. championship at Gonzaga.
She also happens to be a girl. And in a sport dominated by boys, she has a career record of 103-24 against all-male competition.
Ernst wears a T-shirt under her singlet and a black cap to corral her long brown hair, but her slim frame and fast, technical style help her otherwise fit the mold of a typical 120-pounder.
“I feel like I’ve blended in,” she said. “I’m more of just a competitor than a girl.”
It hasn’t always been that way. Though Ernst was one of three girls on her team when she first started wrestling in seventh grade, she was the only one to stick with the sport in high school. As a freshman, she grew accustomed to the stares from opponents and coaches between matches, the sexist remarks and jokes that followed her at tournaments.
Ernst just wanted to blend in with the other freshmen, but that was basically impossible. She entered each match with the weight of “this invisible group of women that I felt like I was representing.”
“I wasn’t only fighting the kid that was standing across from me,” Ernst said. “I was also fighting people’s perceptions that I was immediately going to lose. Or that I was really weak. Or that I was really bad technically. Or that I was going to cry.”
Ernst said she always had the support and acceptance of her teammates, including her older brother, Ben, who first sparked her interest in wrestling.
On the practice mat at Georgetown Day, she was an equal. But after practice, while she changed alone in the girls’ locker room, she could hear the rest of the team singing and joking in the boys’ locker room next door.
“I miss that kind of brotherly bond that you have with the team,” she said.
Over time, Ernst became more comfortable and competitive. She won a few local tournaments and qualified twice for National Preps, one of the most prestigious high school wrestling tournaments in the country. Local wrestlers and coaches got to know and respect her as a competitor, and the sexist treatment mostly — but not entirely — stopped, which still frustrates her teammates.
“When people make comments about her, I think that they’re looking at her aesthetically. They’re not really looking at her as an athletic peer,” fellow team captain Armand Harvey said. “That definitely gets to us, but the role is reversed when she ends up pinning the kid. Then it’s pretty different.”
Georgetown Day Coach Justin Gavri said some schools will still automatically forfeit matches against Ernst, most citing religious reasons. Others are simply afraid to face her. One school’s team captain quit after losing to Ernst, while other opponents have endured bullying after such losses.
“When somebody has very strong religious beliefs, I understand that,” Ernst said. “But it makes me a little bit sad that those beliefs would cause them to disqualify a girl from competing or cause them to not see their opponent as an equal competitor.”
Gavri said the forfeits only add fuel to the fire.
“She just wants to be treated like a wrestler, like anybody else,” Gavri said. “She would rather it be a nonissue. But if the other team is sniveling on the bench or something like that, I think she uses that as added motivation.”
Not that she needs it. Gavri said Ernst “works harder than any human being I’ve ever seen.” At practice, when the rest of the team is on the third lap of a stair workout, she is on her fifth, gasping for air. She also runs cross-country and track, has a 4.1 grade-point average and scored a 2200 on her SATs.
Wrestling has become a significant part of Ernst’s identity, but it’s not the only part. Off the mat, she is far from a tomboy. She decided this season not to cut weight in an effort to maintain her femininity.
“Cutting weight just kind of changes your mentality and your body and who you are,” she said. “I’m not like the ‘I love pink’ kind of girl, but I am feminine.”
Ernst will enroll at Harvard in the fall and isn’t sure whether she will continue wrestling there. Maybe she’ll join a women’s freestyle club in Boston or pick up judo or mixed martial arts. Maybe she’ll reinvent that part of herself, the part that gave so much to wrestling. Or maybe she’ll carry it with her.
As Ernst put the finishing touches on her college essay, the 15th draft that helped her get into Harvard, she described winning a match in the third period. She collapsed on the side of the mat, concentrating only on the beads of sweat dripping down her back.
Whether or not I won, I knew I belonged in this gym.