With an almost choreographed grace, they throw each other to the ground, attack and defend in lightning-fast motions. As these women, who make up California's only all-women collegiate wrestling team, step and fall onto a soft blue mat covering the gym floor, steam fills the windows inside their toasty gym.
The banner of the team's recent national championship at the Women's College Wrestling Association hangs on the wall proudly, but doesn't distract the athletes, focused on their new goal: defeating their opponents in the inaugural National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Women's Invitational, held last weekend, March 15 and 16, in Jamestown, North Dakota.
Their efforts during long hours of practice paid off. Menlo College won the championship title on March 16, and all 12 wrestlers who competed came back with All-American titles. Five returned with individual national titles as well.
Two of the 30 athletes on the team are star freshmen, undefeated at the college level in their respective weight classes: Gracie Figueroa, 19, in the 116-pound class, and Alleida Martinez, 18, in the 109-pound class. Figueroa and Martinez both hail from Selma, a small town in Fresno County known as the Raisin Capital of the World.
As children, they found their way into the Selma wrestling club separately and became friends over time as two of the few girls in the program.
Martinez, who began wrestling at age 9, said she was concerned at first that she would be the only girl on the team, but her parents encouraged her to try the sport. "I like the challenge," she said. "You had to know what you were doing out there."
Sometimes, she said, boys would forfeit rather than wrestle a girl, but she always felt supported in the sport by her team and her family.
Figueroa said she began wrestling at age 10 after being dragged along to her brother's wrestling practices and tournaments. As a kid, she said, she didn't care if she was the only girl. She had fun wrestling with the guys.
"When they were wrestling (me), they thought it was going to be easy," she said. When she surprised the boys and beat them, she added, "most of them cry. It was funny."
Martinez and Figueroa were strong competitors when they wrestled with the Selma Wrestling Club. One of their coaches there, Joey Areyano, noted that when they were kids, Martinez and Figueroa were the only two girls on the team.
He attributes their success to having spent so much time training "in a room full of really tough boys," and working hard. He said he would assign the same tough workouts to everyone on his team, and both Martinez and Figueroa routinely woke up at 5 a.m. to run or lift weights.
"Nothing was ever made special just for them because they were girls," he said. "They were just treated as wrestlers."
From their first days on the mat, he said, they weren't "soft," like some young kids who start out somewhat timid, though he came to know the differences in their personalities: Martinez was quieter and liked the spotlight less, while Figueroa was more outgoing. "You'll know when she's in the room," he said. "They were really competitive and didn't like to lose to the boys. ... They had that attitude that they were going to try just as hard to win, just like everyone else."
Figueroa said she began to consider collegiate wrestling in eighth grade. Wrestling in college would be a way to ease the burden on her mom to help pay for school, she explained.
Martinez was more hesitant about the notion of college wrestling, she said. Initially, she said, she thought it would be too hard, but as she experienced more success as an athlete in high school, "I told myself I could do it and help out my family."
"Selma is very supportive of us," Figueroa noted. "That's pretty much our family." While there weren't many female wrestlers to look up to growing up, Figueroa and Martinez said they found inspiration in their hometown twin wrestlers Marina and Regina Doi, who competed as college wrestlers at King University.
Now, Areyano said, more girls are starting to pursue wrestling in Selma, and he believes that has something to do with the role models that Martinez and Figueroa have been to younger female wrestlers in their community.
As athletes recruited by Menlo College, the two freshmen helped their wrestling team win the 2019 national championships at the Women's Collegiate Wrestling Association, or WCWA, held in February. According to Menlo College Head Women's Wrestling Coach Joey Bareng, that association pulls teams and individuals from schools of all sizes into competition.
The path to success as a collegiate athlete in women's wrestling, however, is more complicated than in many other sports. While their sport may be growing rapidly, it still hasn't received recognition from the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association), as men's wrestling has. And the shortage of well-supported women's wrestling programs has left them wondering why they still face some barriers to accessing competition and resources provided to collegiate athletes in other sports.
A sport on the rise
According to the National Wrestling Coaches Association, women's wrestling is one of the fastest-growing school and college sports. The number of female high school wrestlers, as of 2018, had grown to 15,562 from 804 in 1994, the association website states.
The coaches' association is advocating that the NCAA categorize women's wrestling as an "emerging sport," a designation that would put it on track for full recognition over a number of years. Its website points out that women's wrestling now has greater participation numbers at the high school level than crew, fencing or skiing, as well as other NCAA-classified "emerging sports" such as rugby, sand volleyball and equestrian competition.
NCAA recognition is significant. Because the NCAA doesn't recognize women's wrestling, female wrestlers don't have access to the same privileges that male wrestlers in the NCAA receive, such as health insurance, scholarships, grants and internship opportunities, according to a 2018 National Public Radio story.
In addition, for talented athletes like Martinez and Figueroa, because the sport isn't recognized by the NCAA, the chance to compete as a Division I athlete in the sport they love — a respected title college athletes at large universities can claim — isn't a possibility right now.
"I believe we should have a chance to wrestle (Division) I," Figueroa told The Almanac."I wanted to go to a D1 school and call myself a D1 wrestler."
Instead, the two athletes chose Menlo College, which, while it is the only college in the state with a women's wrestling team, has fewer than 1,000 undergraduates and offers limited courses of study. (Both athletes said they're still deciding on majors.)
A thriving team
Menlo College was one of the first colleges in the U.S. to start a women's wrestling team. That was in 2001. Bareng said that when he started leading the team six years ago, the program had floundered and was on the verge of being cut.
Each year he's coached, he said, he's focused on building up the team, drawing upon his experience as a strength and conditioning coach to help athletes peak at the right time in the season and be mentally prepared to compete. As a result, the team's rankings have risen, and it's become easier to recruit wrestlers, he said.
For the uninitiated, he explained the basic rules of the sport. Women's collegiate wrestling follows the "freestyle" rulebook, which is also used in the Olympics. (Women's wrestling was formally recognized as an Olympic sport in 2004.) There are two, three-minute periods during which a wrestler is tasked with the overall objective of pinning her competitor, back flat on the mat. In addition, athletes can score points through different moves carrying different point values. A match can also end if a wrestler scores 10 or more points more than her opponent, which is called a "technical fall."
Bareng said he likes that the female athletes he coaches are learning to compete the way Olympians do. In contrast, men usually wrestle in the "folk" style at the collegiate level, which has different time periods — a three-minute round, followed by two, two-minute rounds — and some differences in the point system.
When asked what attributes make a good wrestler, Bareng responded that she has to be tough, disciplined and able to fight through adversity.
At the end of the day, he said, the sport pits one athlete's skills, strength and training against another, and if an athlete loses, she only has herself to blame. Coaches can help, of course, but it's up to the individual athlete to make the most of the six minutes she gets on the mat, he asserted.
"That's what makes this sport really tough," he added.
Eyes on the prize
Wrestling has already taken Martinez and Figueroa all over the world. Martinez said she'd been to Bosnia, Georgia (the country and the state), as well as Japan and Slovakia for training and competitions. Bareng said the Menlo College team has to travel widely in the U.S. as well.
After the completion of their first collegiate season, Martinez and Figueroa already have a road map for what's ahead: first, training for the Women's National Championships in May, held in Texas, where they will wrestle women in other age groups. Then? The 2020 Olympic trials.
"We know it's coming around the corner," Figueroa said. "We don't want to think about it too much."