Posts Tagged ‘Cassy Herkelman’

Breaking Through Wrestling’s Glass Ceiling

February 13, 2011

Today is the first day of State Week. For those of you not of the “faith” the words State Week are capitalized because they are not just mere words; in the state of Iowa and to the wrestling community, it as an event, a holiday. It is the Iowa State High School Wrestling tournament.
From today through Wednesday morning, fans and discussion forums will burn up with talk about the upcoming, four-day extravaganza at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. Beginning Wednesday afternoon, 672 wrestlers and thousands of fans will descend on the state capitol and join in the battle for the 336 medals and nine team trophies to be handed out. It is the greatest show on Earth.
But this year, at least up until the 3A schools begin competition Thursday morning, a lot of the talk will be about two wrestlers. Not unbeaten or top-ranked wrestlers or whether or not any Class 1A school can unseat Don Bosco after five straight State championships.
No, the discussion will be about a pair of 112-pounders in Class 3A. Cassy Herkelman of Cedar Falls and Megan Black of Ottumwa have become the first two girls ever to qualify for the Iowa State Wrestling tournament. It’s no Egyptian Revolution, but in Iowa high school wrestling, it’s pretty close.
Prior to moving to Kansas in 1997, I had seen handful of female wrestlers in high school meets over the years. Usually, these young ladies had success at the kids and middle school levels, but the speed and power of the Iowa high school level was too much for them. Usually by their sophomore year, they were done.
But that view changed in 1999, my first year as a head coach in Kansas. We were in a huge two-day tournament in St. Marys. The top-seeded wrestler at 103 pounds was a freshman from Santa Fe Trail High School, who was 18-0 with 15 falls. The wrestler’s name was Brooke Bogren.
OK, I had sat through the seeding meeting, heard the name and saw the numbers. I hadn’t even given it any thought; I had heard of boys named Brooke in my life.
But on Friday afternoon, as the teams were on the mat warming up before the first round, I glanced over at the Santa Fe Trail team. They were in our league and one of the 4A powers in the state, but we hadn’t faced them yet during the year. But as I looked, something looked odd to me. One of the smallest Trail wrestlers had blonde hair wrapped into tight braids. In baggy warm-ups it was hard to tell, and I had seen boys with long hair braid their hair when they wrestled.
Finally, I asked my assistant – a veteran of area wrestling – a question. “Is the one in the braids Bogren?”
He smiled at me. “Yes, and she’s a girl, too.”
I consider myself progressive, liberal, and totally open-minded. But I was also stunned. A girl was 18-0 with 15 pins?
I spent the weekend watching her wrestle; she was smooth, strong and well-trained. She dominated four opponents, with three pins and a major decision. She went on to qualify for the state meet in Kansas that year and two others (she missed her junior year due to a knee injury suffered in volleyball). She went on win women’s national championships in college, just missed making the Olympic team and now coaches women’s college wrestling.
And I did see other girls reach the State meet in Kansas over my seven years there, but – with all due respect to my Sunflower State friends – Kansas wrestling isn’t Iowa wrestling. It is simply not. I never imagined that a girl would ever break that glass ceiling into Wells Fargo Arena in the meat-grinder that is Iowa high school wrestling.
Wrong again, times two. Yesterday, Cassy Herkelman became the first, as the Cedar Falls freshman defeated Scott Morehouse of Marion 6-2 in the wrestleback at the District meet at Waverly. As the clocked ticked to zero, the crowd – realizing the moment of history – rose and gave her a standing ovation. There isn’t a lot that hasn’t happened in high school wrestling in Iowa; history merely builds upon itself. But this was a whole new thing. About an hour later, 150 miles away in Mount Pleasant, Black accomplished the same thing. The history was made.
Generally, the reaction on the chat boards has been good and supportive. A few have chimed in that having girls wrestling boys is morally wrong. One even said that girls had an unfair advantage because most 14 or 15-year old boys would be pretty flustered by being this close in contact with a girl for the first time in their life. Not even going to touch that one.
When I coached, I had several girls who asked me about wrestling – both in Kansas and in Iowa. Several tried a few days or a week of practice, but only one ever made it on to the mat – Valerie Bahr in 2005 for Vinton-Shellsburg. She won a match in a tournament because a boy defaulted out of fear of losing to her. But I always told girls the same thing when they asked it about it.
I told them that in the wrestling room, on the mat, I won’t see gender. You will be a wrestler, you will have the same expectations as any other wrestler in the room and that’s it. Other than the obvious things like hair covers and weigh-ins, they would literally be treated as “one of the guys.”
Today, if they weren’t before, Cassy Herkelman and Megan Black are two of the guys. And this no fluke; qualifying for the Iowa State Wrestling tournament in no small feat. There are a lot of wrestlers out there with 120-plus wins that never made it to Des Moines.
But this coming Thursday morning, every eye in Wells Fargo Arena will be on the mats that Herkelman and Clark step onto. And whether they win or lose, place or go out 0-2 the first day, it won’t matter. History will be made and another glass ceiling will have been broken.
And in a state that lately has seemed to be bent on curtailing the rights and opportunities of portions of its citizens based on issues related to gender, it is beautifully ironic indeed that this week, in the shadow of the Golden Dome of the Iowa capitol building, two girls will break through a wall most us thought unbreakable. Bravo.