Michelle Duong and Trace Thome practice during the summer off-season. Photos by Molly Minta.

The only two women on UF’s wrestling team are taking down barriers. 

It was spring semester in 2015, and Michelle Duong was walking through the drafty halls of Southwest Recreation Center. She was looking for the taekwondo club, which she had practiced for 11 years at home, when she accidentally walked into jiu-jitsu, a sport she’d never tried before.

She decided to stay, the happiest accident of her college career.

The first person she spoke to was Jessica Rodriguez, a sophomore. The two became fast friends and exercise partners, sharing a diary over Google Docs of their progress.

Rodriguez’s main sport was wrestling. She started in high school and, by chance, continued it into college. For the past year she had been the lone girl on UF’s club wrestling team and the first one to stay for more than a year.

Most intercollegiate club teams are separated by gender; the men and women compete on separate teams and at separate tournaments. But club wrestling, a sport heavily dominated by men, lacks the organization to offer a full team to women. So any woman wishing to compete in the sport must practice with the guys.

Rodriguez often had to practice alone. At only five feet tall, she doesn’t have the body type most men can fairly wrestle, even if they wanted to. As she became friends with Duong, she started to try to convince her to come out to the wrestling team.

“I told her, “Hey, we really need girls on the wrestling,” Rodriguez said. “She was very reluctant at first—I didn’t push her too much, but I really wanted her.”

It took Rodriguez a year to convince Duong to join.

“I would not step into the room without Jessica there, cause I was so scared to walk into that room,” Duong said. “I have to meet wrestlers who are tough and scary—I would sit outside and wait for her until she got there.”

But wrestling intrigued Duong. It challenged her like taekwondo had, and the wrestling team soon became her home away from home. When Rodriguez left for a study abroad in Honduras, Duong made the decision to keep going to practice.

Duong and Rodriguez aren’t just the first women on UF’s wrestling team; they’re two out of only three women who wrestle at the college level in the entire state of Florida.

“The girls have really changed our perspective on wrestling,” said Nick Anthony, the women’s wrestling coach who also competes. “One way or another, we’ll both be involved in women’s wrestling for the rest of our wrestling lives, which is the rest of our lives.”

Duong and Thome practice a take down.

Wrestling seems like a simple sport. There are only two competitors, and the object of the game—control your opponent by knocking them down to the mat or pinning their shoulder blades to the floor—sounds simple enough.

But wrestling is deceptively grueling.

“It’s basically a fight with rules,” said Anthony. “It’s not like other sports—if you lose, you get physically beat up.”

The sport has traditionally been dominated by men. Women weren’t allowed to wrestle in most places until after the passage of Title IX in 1979, and the sport didn’t start to grow until 1994. In 2004, the sport was added to the Olympics, but women still face barriers from the wrestling establishment, especially if they’re not looking to compete at the varsity level.

Even if a woman is the lone gal on her team, as Rodriguez was for a year, she’s technically not allowed to wrestle with the men at all, according to rules from the National Collegiate Wrestling Association, or NCWA. Most teams defy this rule, because it’s impractical to force a member of your team to practice alone.

“Most wrestling, the reason it’s so good is that you can train for a couple weeks, go compete and then you’re told right away whether that you’re doing is working,” said Tim Ironman, UF’s head wrestling coach.

Duong and Rodriguez don’t get that feedback; both women have gone months without any competitive matches.

“It’s like being benched when you’re on the soccer field,” Rodriguez said. “If you’re benched all the time, if you’re not playing the games, you’re not going to learn anything. In a way that’s what wrestling kind of felt like, because we couldn’t compete just because we didn’t have anybody to compete against.”

Boys and girls can compete against each other in high school, but boys will often refuse to wrestle girls. In 2011, Joel Nothrop, a high school freshman, forfeited his first match at the Iowa State tournament, a prestigious wrestling tournament, because he refused to wrestle his female competitor Cassy Herkelman.  In high school, Rodriguez experienced this herself.

“Some of the guys wouldn’t even go on the mat with me,” Rodriguez said. “They would just give me the forfeit and I would take the win, which is a crappy way of winning.”

The rule separating men and women is also enforced at wrestling tournaments and competitions, where women are often either have to wrestle a competitor who isn’t in their weight class or one they’ve wrestled numerous times before. The NCWA only offers one official competition for women, and it’s the national championship, where their events are thrown in between the men’s, depriving them of hype that could help build the sport up more.

And the ratio of men to women at these tournaments is high—about 70 women across each weight class to 300 men.

“My first time walking into a big arena with a whole bunch of guys warming up and wrestling, it felt strange,” Duong said. “It felt like I didn’t belong.”

It’s an alienating feeling that both Rodriguez and Duong have experienced: walking into a room and realizing they’re the only girls around.

“As soon as you start wrestling, all eyes are on you,” Rodriguez said. “What are the girls going to do?”

Jim Guinta, the executive director of the NCWA, wrote in an email that the problem is not enough women transition to into coaching and organizing.

“My biggest issue is that I don’t have the bandwidth or the time to put into women’s wrestling what it deserves,” he said.

“The girls have really changed our perspective on wrestling. One way or another, we’ll both be involved in women’s wrestling for the rest of our wrestling lives, which is the rest of our lives.”

Guinta thinks the solution is to create a women’s division within the NCWA, but said he’d rather a woman head up the division than himself or another man. Guinta has yet to find a woman to do this; he said that life might just catch up with them as they get married and have kids.

“[You] don’t see many of them coming back to coach which is a real shame because we need them desperately to build that same cycle of tradition for the women’s programs,” Guinta said.

“Frankly, we’re not doing enough,” he added.

The problem, according to Anthony, isn’t getting women to come out to the sport. The interest is there, he said; the problem is getting women to stay.

“For that lone girl in a room of 15 guys, it’s exponentially harder,” Anthony said. “Because now she’s picking up heavier people, she’s running with people that are faster and stronger than her, and she’s wrestling people that are heavier and stronger than her, so it’s just more tortuous. I don’t know if I would’ve stuck that out, if I was a girl.”

It’s on the coaches to create a welcoming environment, he added.

“It’s like being benched when you’re on the soccer field. If you’re benched all the time, if you’re not playing the games, you’re not going to learn anything. In a way that’s what wrestling kind of felt like, because we couldn’t compete just because we didn’t have anybody to compete against.”

“Anyone who wants to work hard with us can come to practice quote,” said Ironman. 

Duong and Rodriguez are dedicated athletes. Last year, they practiced five days a week in between school and their jobs. They don’t receive scholarships to wrestle, and there’s no monetary compensation for winning. They do the sport because they love it.

This past February, only nine months after she stepped into the wrestling room, Duong’s competed in her first competition against someone in her weight class at Nationals.

“I was underweight and all the girls were a good five inches taller than me,” she said.

Despite all of the obstacles against her, Duong ended up placing second in the tournament. 

“Knowing that I put two hours a day, five days a week, going to practice, like doing all that for a whole entire year just for one match that’s less than seven minutes,” she said, laughing. “Yeah, that’s the feeling.”

Tucked away in Southwest Rec, the wrestling practice is beginning in Activity Room 2. Black practice mats are rolled out, and one of the practice circles is immediately occupied by partners, Duong and Trace Thome, who recently graduated. Putting their hands on each other’s shoulders, they lean into each other, assuming an image that can be seen on vases dating 5,000 years back to Ancient Greece, when wrestling began.

As they begin to wrestle, Anthony watches, critiquing their movements and offering feedback.

“It’s funny,” he said. “You two really do have the same wrestling style.”

Duong and Trace begin to push and pull at each other as they look for a weakness they can exploit to take the other down.

“There’s this life lesson: No matter how many times somebody can throw you down, you still have to stand back up,” Duong said. “Physically, you have to stand back up—same thing in life.” •