CARIBOU, Maine — With two new state wrestling champions on their squad, Caribou High School athletes and coaches are eager to form what could be one of the state’s first all-girls teams.
Grace Jean, a sophomore, and Jocelyn Parlin, a junior, are the only girls in Aroostook County on a wrestling team. Last month, Jean and Parlin won in their weight divisions during the Maine’s girls wrestling championship in Wells. They are two of five girl wrestlers on their school’s team.
“It’s a relief [to wrestle against girls],” Parlin said. “Being confident is the biggest challenge when you’re wrestling boys.”
Right now, all-female wrestling isn’t a state-sanctioned sport. That means girl wrestlers must join male-dominated teams to compete in local and regional team contests. But they can compete individually.
The Maine Principals’ Association hosted its first state-sanctioned girls wrestling championship in 2019.
In 2023, Oceanside High School junior Maddie Ripley became Maine’s first female to beat a male wrestler during the Class B championship and took home a state championship title in the 107-pound division.
So far, female wrestlers have only competed in individual state championships, and no schools have formed girls-only teams.The MPA can only sponsor a team championship if 10 or more schools form teams, which is the same policy for any sport, said Mike Bisson, assistant executive director for association’s interscholastic division.
For competitive opportunities for girls to grow, female wrestling in Maine will need to recover from a pandemic slump, Bisson said.
At the state’s first girls wrestling championship, 61 girls participated. That number jumped to 71 in 2020. The MPA opted not to host a championship in 2021 because of the pandemic.
Since then, the number of wrestlers in the girls championship has not bounced back. Thirty-two athletes from 12 schools participated this year, only a small jump from the nearly 30 competitors in 2022.
Bisson hopes the athletes who won this year inspire more girls across the state.
“We would love to see more girls participating. Wrestling, whether you’re a boy or girl, builds confidence and the ability to deal with success and failure,” Bisson said. “If we can level the playing field and have girls compete with girls, that’s the ultimate goal.”
Coaches who have mentored wrestlers, like Casey and Nina Ryan of Caribou High School, have made it their mission to help build girls’ potential.
Wrestling is an intense, physically demanding sport, which means promising female athletes often shy away from competing against boys, said Casey Ryan, the school’s head wrestling coach. Many girls favor the more equal competition that happens when they wrestle girls in their weight class, he said.
Casey’s wife, Nina Ryan, who serves as assistant coach, knows the intimidation of wrestling firsthand.
As a high school wrestler in Massachusetts, Nina Ryan did not get a lot of mat time and was one of only a few girls on the team. She sees more widespread support for girls now, but thinks that an all-girls team would encourage more to participate.
“Wrestling is one of the only sports that’s not recreational. It’s a combat sport,” Nina Ryan said. “When I was watching the girls wrestle [at states], I was jumping out of my seat. It’s so exciting to see them beat other girls because of their own skills.”
The Ryans hope to form Caribou’s first all-girl wrestling team within three to five years. They would be the first such team in Aroostook, and possibly the state. In Aroostook, only one other wrestling team exists, a unified team between Fort Kent and Madawaska, so far with only male athletes.
Caribou is not the only high school looking to give girls their own team.
At Bucksport High School, head wrestling coach David Gross mentors four girls on his team of 18 wrestlers. Senior Mya Moran took first place in the state championships this year, while junior Naomi Bragg and senior Jazmyne Rines each placed third in their weight classes.
Though Gross has seen interest in wrestling among girls level out in his district, it’s because girls are reluctant to compete against boys, he said. But when given an equal chance, girl wrestlers bring everything they have.
“They don’t give up. [That’s why] it would be great to see more success come out of their hard work,” Gross said.
In the meantime, Jean and Parlin look forward to testing their skills at the national girls wrestling championships on March 19 in Fitchburg, Massachusetts.
Wrestling against boys might be a little tougher, but Jean feels well prepared.
“Fighting the boys builds you up to fight the girls,” Jean said. “And it’s good to know that you can beat some of the boys.”