For Payton Rigert, Marina Smith, MaKenna Sullenger and Jessica DeHart, the saying “chicks dig scars” takes on an entirely different meaning.
Like any other wrestler, the four Hood River Valley High School students view the burns, bumps and bruises inherent to the sport as marks of pride; as confirmation that they’re working hard to accomplish something important in their lives.
“I’m proud to show up to school with bruises and cuts and black eyes,” said senior 124-pound Sullenger. “Of course, we try not to get beat up, but it happens. Wrestling is a rough sport. It’s also a big adrenaline rush.”
With pink polish chipping off her nails, Rigert, a freshman and first-year wrestler, said, “For me it’s a thrill doing something that not many girls are doing. It’s a really hard sport, but with the challenge comes a huge feeling of accomplishment, especially when you win, and especially when you beat a boy.”
With four girls on the team this year, Eagle wrestling continues to build on a growing tradition of tough and talented female wrestlers. In the past four years, HRV has had three different female state champions (Frannie Ybarra in 2009 and 2011, Katie Eddy in 2010, 2011 and 2012 and DeHart in 2012) and two national champions (Eddy and DeHart).
This season all four teammates have their sights set on bringing home girls state titles; and, of course, beating as many guys as possible along the way. For DeHart — wrestling at the team’s varsity 106-lb. slot — once the high school season is over she’ll be working toward a second national freestyle title in the summer.
“I grew up surrounded by wrestling and wanted to do it ever since I was little,” said DeHart, whose name carries a long tradition of Hood River Valley wrestling. Her father wrestled, her uncles wrestled, her cousins wrestled and her older brother wrestles, so she was destined to wrestle as soon as she could turn off her back as a baby.
For Rigert, Smith and Sullenger, the choice was a bit less obvious.
Smith started in sixth grade at Hood River Middle School. “My uncle wrestled,” Smith said. “I really look up to him. He’s a hero to me and I wanted to do something that he did, so I started wrestling.”
In her first year on the mat, Rigert says wrestling is a natural fit because of her background in jujitsu. For Sullenger, also a novice, the motivation came from watching her little sister beat up on the boys in the Hood River Wrestling Club’s youth program.
“Oregon is behind in the times when it comes to girls wrestling,” said Trent Kroll, HRVHS head coach. “Washington, California, Hawaii and about 15 or 20 other states have recognized female wresting as its own sport, but Oregon does not.”
Other than a couple female-specific competitions during the regular season, the girls are generally thrown into the mix with whoever is in their weight class, which usually means wrestling against guys.
“It might be different at other schools, but here we are just another member of the team,” DeHart said. “We are treated the same and are expected to work just as hard. At tournaments, I absolutely hate it when a guy apologizes for beating me. That just makes me feel like I didn’t try hard enough.”
For Kroll, embracing and encouraging female wrestling is the obvious decision.
“The way I see it, the other half of our population now has a chance to participate in something positive that will change their lives; it’s very exciting” he said. “Our goal in Hood River is to get enough girls in the program to where they don’t have to wrestle against guys if they don’t want to.”
The girls this season say they prefer to wrestle against guys. It makes them tougher, they say, and gives them more of a sense of accomplishment when they finish a good match — win or lose.
“They are usually stronger, so we have to use different technique and strategy to take advantage of our strengths,” Sullinger said. “I’ve definitely been smashed around by guys, but it makes me a tougher wrestler and, like I said, I don’t mind showing up to school with a few bruises.”