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Shannon Scovel | NCAA.com | October 6, 2021

Why Iowa became the first Power Five school to add a women's wrestling program — and what it could mean for the future

Hawkeye heroes claim 23 wrestling team titles

The Iowa wrestling room inspires a special kind of determination. Hawkeye Wrestling Club wrestler Victoria Francis describes a “we’re going to work hard, we’re going to bang heads” kind of mentality — that grit. This culture produced NCAA and Olympic wrestling champions and helped Iowa become known as one of the most premier wrestling institutions in the country. 

But on September 23, the school added to its legacy and created a new kind of history: becoming the first Power Five Division I NCAA program to add a women’s wrestling program.

In a press conference, Iowa men’s wrestling head coach Tom Brands and Iowa athletic director Gary Barta made the decision official, with Barta explaining that wrestling is “part of the fabric of Iowa, part of the University of Iowa’s DNA,” and that adding women’s wrestling to that tradition is logical given the rise in high school girls' participation in the sport and the traditional of excellence for U.S. women’s wrestlers on the international stage.

"I have watched and been a part of the growth of women’s sport, most recently with my daughter, watching her play in high school, as she was going through that process," Barta said. "Going all the way back to when I was a student-athlete in the early 1980s and watching the growth of sports for girls and sports at the highest level all the way up to the Olympics has been amazing. This is just another positive step in that direction."

The efforts to create a women’s program at Iowa had been in the works for months, if not years, according to Francis, a USA Wrestling national team member who finished third at the 2021 Olympic Trials. The official announcement came less than two weeks after Iowa signed three new women, including Francis, to the Hawkeye Wrestling Club Regional Training Center, a non-profit organization affiliated at the university designed to create postgraduate opportunities for elite athletes competing for World and Olympic team sports.

These two monumental investments into women’s wrestling show Iowa’s commitment to building a pipeline of talent for women through all stages of their competitive careers and convey the kind of support Francis expects to see for the athletes in these programs. 

“To have the first Power Five, first Big Ten women’s wrestling team there, it just makes sense,” Francis told NCAA.com. “It’s so exciting because you just know that these women that are going to get recruited into this first-year team, they are going to be supported. They are going to be supported by the school, by the community, the whole state is going to be behind them. Iowa wrestling means Iowa women’s wrestling, so it’s just going to all come together.”

Iowa is the third Division I school to build out a women’s program, joining Sacred Heart and Presbyterian, but it’s the first school of its size to create this opportunity. Thirteen DII teams, 22 DIII teams and 36 NAIA teams also already have programs and compete in national tournaments every year, particularly the National Collegiate Women's Wrestling Championships, as a way to determine the most elite team and athletes every year. All of these programs compete in freestyle, the international style of wrestling, while the college men's teams compete in folkstyle. Iowa has a strong tradition of elite freestyle wrestling and is expected to take the mat for the first time in 2023, after the school has hired a coach and built a roster. The official schedule of duals for the Hawkeyes will likely depend on how many other teams add programs and where those programs are located geographically.

EMERGING SPORT STATUS: The complete guide to understanding women's wrestling's path forward

Women’s wrestling is currently an NCAA emerging sport, a status that has been associated with the sport since 2020. Emerging sport status means that women’s wrestling is on the path to becoming an NCAA championship sport in DI if 40 schools add teams in the next 10 years. The NCAA sponsors 90 championships across all three divisions.

Title IX and the path to the program 

While the decision to add women’s wrestling represents a new opportunity to Iowa to add to its sporting legacy and create additional opportunities for empowered female athletes at the school, the addition of the program has a slightly complicated backstory.

In August 2020, Iowa announced plans to cut swimming and diving, men’s gymnastics and men’s tennis from the athletics budget. In response to this decision, four Iowa women’s swimming and diving team members — Sage Ohlensehlen, Christina Kaufman, Alexa Puccini and Kelsey Drake—  filed a Title IX lawsuit against the school the following month arguing that the school needed to both reinstate the swimming and diving team and add at least one new athletic program to remain in compliance with Title IX. By February 2021, the school had reinstated swimming and committed itself to upholding the principles of Title IX.

Barta explained that the school brought in a Title IX expert to assist administrators with decisions around equity and inclusion, and, through conversations with this expert and sports leaders in general, agreed to add an additional women’s sport. Given student interest in wrestling and history of success of the sport at Iowa, women’s wrestling became a natural fit.

“This is the bottom line: Were it not for COVID we wouldn’t have cut sports, were it not for the Title IX lawsuit, I wasn’t ready to add women’s wrestling yet,” Barta said at the press conference. “But I can tell you that while the timing may be challenging, the decision is awesome. We’re excited about it. We’re ready to go forward.” 

The future of women’s wrestling in Iowa and beyond 

Iowa administrators aren’t the only ones excited about the development of the program.

Previously, girls and women coming out of high school had the opportunity to compete at the DII, DIII and NAIA level, as DI programs only started emerging in the last several years, and Francis said that there are opportunities to find great success and fulfillment in all those programs. Campbellsville and King University both produced 2021 Olympians Kayla Miracle and Sarah Hildebrandt, and Francis’ alma mater Lindenwood as well as McKendree and Life University have also been known to develop champions. Finding the right academic and athletic fit at those smaller institutions can be challenging, though, and a smaller setting may not be ideal for every student. 

OLYMPIC LEGACY: The college careers of the 2020 US Olympic wrestlers

Tricia Andersen, the mother of Grand View University wrestler Ali Andersen and an Iowa alumna, told NCAA.com that her daughter was interested in wrestling in college after competing locally on the high school level and worked hard to find a university that offered a pre-vet program where she could wrestle. Her options were limited, and a school like Iowa could have been an ideal fit.

“My only slight bit of disappointment was that [Iowa was] two years too late because if they were to do this and starting now, my daughter could have considered going to Iowa,” Andersen said.

Ali Andersen ultimately found a home at Grand View and is enjoying the collegiate experience. She loves being part of an all-girls team, and she appreciates the fact that the girls and women behind her will have the chance to experience that same thing at a Power Five school like Iowa. 

Francis agreed, saying that while she was grateful for her collegiate experience at Lindenwood and has no regrets, she recognizes the value of the Big Ten student-athlete experience. 

BIG TEN CHAMPIONS: Iowa men's wrestling wins the 2021 conference tournament

“It’s very helpful to some girls who do want to go to a big school or they do want a certain program, academic program that they’re looking for and Iowa can offer some of those programs to student-athletes,” Francis said. “It’s a big deal, and I think it’s going to be really interesting to see where people go these next few years.”

Iowa opens news doors for the growing number of girls competing in high school sports around the country, and Cody Goodwin, a wrestling reporter at the Des Moines Register, told NCAA.com that this decision could have a major ripple effect on the participation rates and the level of competition in girls and women's in wrestling. 

“Now these high school girls can aim higher, and that’s going to play a huge role in you know more girls coming out for wrestling nationwide, and that’s going to play a huge role in their development,” Goodwin said. “That’s going to have a huge impact, both in the near and long term when it comes to girls wrestling at the high school.” 

The U.S. has already seen growth and success from its women’s national team, particularly from athletes like Kylie Welker and Kennedy Blades, who have had success on the senior level as high school wrestlers. This pipeline could get only stronger, with advocates and leaders in the sport pushing for the state to sanction a girls high school state tournament, as 32 states have already done, to further inspire involvement and elite performance. 

The Iowa Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association does currently host its own girls state tournament every year, and participation for girls at the high school level has increased from just under 70 girls five years ago to over 650 girls last year. The opportunity to chase a state title has motivated girls to come out and compete, but Goodwin says he expects that, with Division I Big Ten opportunities on the line, there will be even more interest in girls wrestling. 

“There is something different about the Hawkeyes having a women’s program,” Goodwin told NCAA.com. “It’s the most visible college program, one of NCAA's most successful, and they routinely produce World- and Olympic-type wrestlers through the Hawkeye Wrestling Club. That’s going to hit a little different than Division II, Division III, NAIA programs.” 

NCAA CHAMPIONS: Iowa wins 24th national team title 

The interest in this new program, however, extends beyond state lines. Mark Matt, a high school coach in Greeneview, Ohio told NCAA.com that he sees Iowa’s new program as a chance to motivate girls to stay in the sport, including his own daughters. Matt admitted that he initially didn’t want his girls wrestling because “it really doesn’t go anywhere, there wasn’t a big opportunity for it to go any place, even if they really loved it at that time,” but his position changed since he took a high school head coaching job and started to see more women find opportunities to pursue the sport beyond local events.

NCAA WRESTLING HISTORY: Complete list of teams that have won men's team titles 

Both of Matt’s daughters, Eve and Gwen, are now starting their freshman years of high school, but they have big dreams of winning state titles, earning 100+ career high school wins and, ultimately, wrestling in college. They became the first two girls to represent their high school to compete in Fargo, the prestigious annual high school tournament in North Dakota, and while they said the experience was nerve-wracking, it was their first chance to compete on a national stage and generate attention from recruiters. 

Gwen and Eve Matt are still too young to have officially started the recruiting process, but Eve in particular is excited about the possibility of competing for a team like Iowa in college, a program that they first became exposed to during a youth camp hosted by the women of the Hawkeye Wrestling Club a few years ago. 

“It just seems like a really cool opportunity,” Eve Matt said. “I think it’s really cool that younger girls, there’s going to be more of them as they grow up, and it’s really cool to think that there are going to be just as many girls as boys.” 

Next steps for Iowa women's wrestling

Iowa won’t put a team on the mat until 2023, but the administration has a clear plan to take steps now that guarantee future success, starting with hiring a head coach to lead the team, recruiting elite talent and building out a competitive schedule. 

“We will hire a coach, it will be the best coach in America,” Barta said. “We want to win championships. We’re going to look for the coach that we think can get us there and agrees to be a part of the win, graduate, do it right principle and philosophy.” 

Barta explained that men’s head coach Tom Brands will be involved in the hiring search. 

Victoria Diaz, a digital content manager at Women's Sports Foundation, praised Tom Brands for his advocacy of girls and women’s wrestling and said that the Iowa announcement provides a unique opportunity for new leaders in the sport to continue to support up-and-coming elite women athletes. 

“Leadership is just as important at this point to sustain a program and putting these girls first is going to be a priority,” she told NCAA.com. 

Diaz said that the more college programs that develop, the more positions will be available for those finishing out their wrestling careers who want to give back and those who just want to be involved in the sport, creating a greater knowledge base in the sport for men and women. 

Hiring a coach though won’t be the only major step the team will need to take though. The program will also need to recruit top high school athletes, and while Iowa has an advantage as the only Division I Power Five program, Goodwin cautions that this doesn’t mean Iowa won’t have recruiting competition. 

Some athletes may choose to remain with the more established women’s programs in McKendree University and Life because those programs already have systems in place to produce champions. Other athletes may also choose to forgo the college experience completely and begin their senior level careers, a move that Goodwin said is less common in men’s wrestling but has happened on occasion, particularly for Greco-Roman men’s wrestling. 

Scholarship money will also be a factor, and despite the fact that Iowa is expected to be fully funded with 10 scholarships, coaches are going to have to make tough decisions about how to divide that money. 

“They aren’t just going to be able to look at the top 25 pound-for-pound wrestlers in the country and say come over to Iowa City,” Goodwin said. “There is going to be a little bit of roster construction, there’s going to be a little bit of ‘where do we allocate scholarships?’ ” 

Regardless, the women who do come to Iowa in the coming years will be part of a historic legacy because Iowa is wrestling — men’s and women’s wrestling. 

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