"Oh...you wrestle?"

One day when Marcella Leonard-Jackson was shopping at the Walmart in Mechanicsville, a woman noticed her gray sweatshirt with COLLEGIATE WRESTLING imprinted across the front and asked her a question which, she well understands, comes with the territory.
“Oh, my gosh,” Marcella recalls the woman innocently saying. “That’s so cute. Is that your boyfriend’s sweatshirt?”
“No,” she answered. “It’s mine.”
There was an pause.
“Oh…you wrestle?” her questioner responded incredulously.
Marcella, who laughs when she relates the story, replied affirmatively. She’d heard the question before. No doubt, she’ll hear it again.
That’s fine with her. You see, each afternoon during the winter season, she heads to the second floor of Collegiate’s athletic center and proudly takes her place among her fellow wrestlers as if there’s nothing unconventional or iconoclastic about a girl participating in an endeavor normally associated with and dominated by males.
“The girls’ and guys’ wrestling culture seems very much the same: the way they carry themselves, the way they warm up, the way they compete,” said Andy Stone, head varsity coach and program leader. “Wrestling’s wrestling.”
Marcella, a junior, is actually one of four girls now in Collegiate’s wrestling program. She’s sharing the team experience with sophomore Jenna Raggio, freshman Amanda Tan and 7th Grader Eve Clemans and 35 varsity, JV and Middle School guys who train together and wholeheartedly support each other’s efforts.
“Wrestling’s a combat sport,” Stone said. “Some people enjoy the physicality and challenge of it. Girls have been competing in judo, taekwondo and mixed martial arts for quite some time. Women are serving in combat roles in the military. Girls’ wrestling fits right into the changes that we’re seeing.”
Marcella’s (and her female teammates’) motivation is the same as the guys’: camaraderie, fun, the challenge and the willingness to push limits and step outside their comfort zone.
“I don’t want to sound cliché,” Marcella said, “but there’s a thing about wrestling that makes you work harder. There’s always another obstacle. You can never chill. You always have to look at what you’re going to do next.
“It’s so strategic. You always have to be thinking. If you’re down by three (points), you know you have to get a takedown or an escape to make up for that. You have to know how much time you have. You have to stay calm and maybe try something a little different.”
That said, wrestling a male opponent (as the girls have done mainly in JV competition) or a stronger, more experienced opponent could cause one less hardy to worry.
“If you do, you psych yourself out,” Marcella said. “That’s the big part: the mental aspect. You walk on the mat with your singlet and headgear just like everyone else.”
Women’s wrestling became an Olympic sport in 2004. Numerous NCAA and NAIA affiliates field women’s teams at the club level. Many local youth wrestling organizations throughout the country include female participants.
“Each (Olympic) cycle, the quality of athletes and techniques have improved,” Stone continued. “As wrestling has gotten good media attention, more girls have been drawn to the sport. There’re more outlets for them now. It’s not surprising that we’ve seen girls who are serious about the sport and want to do well.”
While over the years girls have competed against male counterparts, this year’s schedule includes four tournaments exclusively for girls.
This past Saturday at the Virginia Girls’ Invitational Championship at Hayfield Secondary School, Marcella placed third at 127 and Jenna won one of three matches at 133. Remaining is the Virginia Wrestling Association Girls’ Folkstyle States at the Arthur Ashe Center on Feb. 24.
“At first, having girls on the team was an adjustment,” said Marshall Campbell, a junior, four-year varsity veteran and team captain. “But they’re working just as hard as we are, and they’re really good at wrestling. Honestly, you don’t really think about it anymore. They’re just another member of the team.”
Other than separate weigh-ins, there’s little difference in preparation and competition between the genders once they leave their respective locker rooms.
“Everybody gets treated the same when you’re on the mat,” Stone said. “It’s in context. Inside the ring, the focus is on the battle. It’s intense. It’s fast. That’s where your mind is. I’ve been impressed by how focused our girls are.”
A state champion 119-pound wrestler at Bowie (MD) High School, Stone enjoyed a successful four-year career at the University of Tennessee followed by a four-year stint wrestling for the New York Athletic Club.
He then coached for two years at Poquoson (VA) High School and led the Islanders to consecutive Group AA state runnerup finishes. His next stop was Brookwood (AL) High School where he started the wrestling program and in three years coached the Panthers to the AAAA state title.
Though he was an English teacher with a degree in creative writing, he developed a fascination with high performance training in athletes. In 2001, he came to Collegiate, joined the Middle School physical education department, and found his niche in the wrestling program.
“Wrestling is engulfing,” he said. “When we’re competing, you’re always thinking about new situations and creative ways to solve problems: the chess match of it. You’re always trying to figure out how to outsmart and out-trick in a very intense, emotional, combative environment. You have to do it on the fly.
“Coaching brings out those same things. I fosters really close friendships, that coach-athlete bond, because you’re taking a very difficult path together. That’s fascinating on a lot of levels.”
When Stone was competing and for most of his coaching career, wrestling was an all-male sport, but he’s changed with the times.
“Back then, there was no thought of girls participating,” he said. “As a coach, if I see an athlete who’s serious and wants to work and get better, that gets my attention. I’m all in. That’s why I come to practice: to work with kids like that, regardless of gender.”
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