Chelsea Baker pitched for Turkey Creek, her arsenal boasting a four-seam fastball, curveball and knuckleball, all advanced through the coaching assistance of former major leaguer Joe Niekro. But if Baker’s accomplishment isn’t enough to inspire local girls to cross over sports gender lines, perhaps the stories of girls from Kingston will do the job.
Gia Rowan is a 14-year-old freshman at Kingston High School. After competing against other girls at Albany’s TNT Wrestling, Rowan decided to try out for the modified team in Kingston.
“It was good practice,” Rowan said of her Albany grappling. “There were girls my age, and we don’t have a lot of that in wrestling here.”
Rowan first caught the wrestling bug from an older cousin, though she wasn’t entirely sure it would be her cup of tea as an athlete.
“My uncle told me I was going to do good, but I thought I was going to suck because I had to go against guys,” she said. Even so, she went out for the team, coming around to like the idea of competing against boys as a challenge rather than being concerned about it.
Valerie Hinds, a 12-year-old eighth-grader at J. Watson Bailey Middle School came to that conclusion some time ago, first as a wrestler on the modified team last year, and now as an official member of the Kingston High modified football team.
“I don’t like girly sports,” she said. “I want to do something that a girl has never done before.”
Though it’s fairly uncommon, the idea of girls participating in sports ordinarily considered the domain of male student athletes isn’t new in Kingston. In fact, wrestling coach Phil Brown’s own daughter, Shorna, led a group of around 10 girls on to the JV wrestling team during her freshman year. Shorna Brown was the only one left standing from the group as a senior during the 2008-09 school year, but she said she didn’t mind.
“Wrestling is something I grew up around,” she said. “I always wanted to do it, but I can’t do something on my own. I had to have friends, and once I had more than two girls, I was able to do it. Well, in the first few weeks of practice, we lost around half of those girls. But I don’t quit.”
Coach Brown isn’t just a wrestling coach. He’s a wrestler himself, and is also an advocate of girls competing in sports like wrestling, even when there isn’t a gender-specific option for them.
Though Kingston is a large school district which often competes against other large districts, there’s still not enough interest from female students for a girls-only option in sports like wrestling and football. New York state public school rules only requires districts to allow girls to compete on teams with boys when there are no other comparative options offered. So while the story of Chelsea Baker could conceivably be reproduced in the local Little Leagues, the existence of a high school softball team prevents girls who excel at the sport from even considering playing Tiger baseball.
According to Coach Brown, few girls in Kingston have ever gone beyond the modified level. That’s not because they aren’t qualified, but is rather because as girls move on through their teen years, their bodies develop differently than their male counterparts. In a sport where strength against a single opponent is one of the keys, those differences can turn out to be monumental.
“It’s hard for some girls to be able to compete when boys are suddenly so much tougher,” said Brown. “And some boys have a hard time wrestling girls because there’s no way they can win.”
Hinds elaborated. “I think some boys think, ‘If I beat up a girl, then I’ll feel like a loser, but if she beats me I’m a loser,’” she said.
That one-on-one element of the sport is only one of the issues where girls have been exposed to gender-oriented obstacles. For some, the jibes of classmates and opponents uncomfortable with the idea of girls wrestling boys can begin even before the athletes take to the mats. Shorna Brown said she wasn’t sure she was accepted by her teammates until close to the end of her first year.
“I had to earn it, just because I know people are going to stereotype,” she said. “I had to prove to the guys I was going to be there for practice and stick with it long term. And when they see that, that’s when they respect you.”
Rowan had a similar experience during her first year on the modified team.
“Nobody took me seriously,” she said. “There were a select few people, but for the most part they thought it was a dumb idea. But then I won quite a few matches, so they realized I was serious.”
Hinds, Rowan’s lone female teammate last year, also felt she had to earn respect.
“Some boys were making fun of me, and some were helping me out,” she said. “They thought I was going to flunk out or they thought I was playing around. But it’s like we all became family during the whole thing.”
The issue of cross-gender respect was even more apparent when Kingston wrestled other teams. Despite the rules allowing girls to compete, some coaches have withdrawn their boys who would have had to wrestle against girls and simply given up the loss by forfeit. Coach Brown said that while that happened less often than not, it still showed there’s some distance to make up in how different genders are looked at when it comes to student athletics.
And even when boys didn’t forfeit, they sometimes made competing as uncomfortable an experience as possible, primarily through taunting.
“When we would walk out, people would laugh,” said Rowan. “And you could tell they didn’t take it easy on you.”
Shorna Brown’s experience is unique in that she actually started wrestling competitively at an age where many girls give it up. For many girls, wrestling becomes difficult to continue as their bodies develop in different ways to boys. Brown countered that by wrestling primarily as part of the JV squad, with the exception of a stretch during her sophomore year of high school when she made the ump to varsity to fill in for an injured teammate.
“I didn’t win all my matches, but it gave me good experience,” she said. “Tenth-grade and 11th-grade boys are more into the whole lifting thing, and because of that body difference I pretty much wrestled JV my entire career.”
Rowan, now a freshman at Kingston High, is planning on continuing wrestling. She said she didn’t expect the developmental differences between she and her male counterparts will make as much difference in her case as it might higher up the weight class scale.
“I’m like 96 to 103 pounds, so I don’t think that’s going to be an issue yet,” she said.
Hinds isn’t waiting around for the winter season to compete against boys. She made the final cut to become a member of the modified football team, her preferred position on both offensive and defensive line.
“Football is my favorite sport, and I found out that I was good at it while playing with friends in the winter,” she said, offering a stern warning to any team the Tigers come up against this season. “When I get mad, instead of using my anger in school and fighting and getting suspended, I can use that against opponents from other schools.”
Shorna Brown gave up wrestling when she started school at SUNY Cobleskill two years ago, but she’s just begun training to compete against other young women this winter. As has been her tradition, she’s practicing against male wrestlers.
“It’s comfortable to pick it up again, but I’m rusty,” she said. “I’m just working on my technical skills again.”
Brown had some advice for any Kingston girls thinking about getting involved with wrestling.
“It’s a lot of work, and you either love it or you hate it,” she said. “If you can stick with it, more power to you. It’s awesome. It doesn’t take long for you to actually get it down, but you have to work at it.”
Rowan said that one of the keys to succeed in a sport dominated by boys is to come in with a thick skin.
“You can’t take things too personally,” she said. “When people laugh at you, that’s enough sometimes to make people feel bad and want to quit. In the end the guys are going to do what they’re going to do, and you just have to stay strong.”