Gender stereotypes are no match for Grantsville High girls’ wrestlers

Several wrestlers on the team are cheerleaders and dancers, and have grown in confidence through the traditionally male sport.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sophia Camargo, a 15-year-old Grantsville High School freshman, performs in the Tooele Academy of Dance’s ballet production of “Cinderella,” left. Camargo is also a recent convert to the sport of wrestling, right.

Grantsville • Sophia Camargo glides gracefully across the stage, transitioning seamlessly between relevés, chaines turns and jeté entrelacés. Her dress is made of embroidered tulle with red appliqué flowers, and her crown glimmers under the lights with its red and gold beads and rhinestones.

Camargo, a 15-year-old Grantsville High School freshman, is playing the lead in the Tooele Valley Academy of Dance’s ballet production of “Cinderella” at the Rose Wanger Theater in early May. A ballerina since 7, she thought she’d get the opportunity for the spotlight later in her high school career.

But it was performing cradles, clubs, takedowns and pins that actually helped her get a lead ballet role sooner than anticipated.

“I think wrestling has helped me build confidence and that’s what helped me through auditions,” Camargo said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sophia Camargo, a 15-year-old Grantsville High School freshman, wears an embroidered tulle dress during her lead role in the Tooele Academy of Dance’s ballet production of “Cinderella” at the Rose Wagner Theater on Monday, May 1, 2023. Camargo is also a recent convert to the sport of wrestling.

Girls’ wrestling has grown significantly in Utah since the Utah High School Activities Association sanctioned it with the help of former American Leadership Academy grappler Sage Mortimer. Across the state, the number has grown from 500 to more than 1,300 wrestlers over the last three years.

At Grantsville High, the girls’ wrestling team has grown from five members in 2020-21 to 33 this season. Those young women are interested not only in taking down opponents, but stereotypes.

Camargo is one of several on the Grantsville High girls’ wrestling team with some dance background. Junior Nikkole Dong is on the school’s ballroom dance team. Graduating senior Brielle Fawson and junior Hailey Broderick are cheerleaders.

All four girls are recent converts to wrestling. The group includes graduating senior Addison Butler, who plays softball and tennis and wrestled for one season.

For each of the five girls, wrestling has grown their confidence, self-esteem and self-worth, and even healed body image issues.

“Wrestling definitely changed my life,” Butler said. “I feel like I can do anything.”

From grace to in your face

Grantsville coach Matthew Mecham likes to recruit dancers to his wrestling team because of their athleticism and strength. With the help of since-graduated Hannah Broderick, the team welcomed a slew of new members starting in December 2021.

Dong, an eloquent yet soft-spoken 17-year-old, has used dance to express herself since she was about 3. Aside from ballroom dance, she has experience with ballet, contemporary, hip hop and other styles. They’re all stand-ins for her voice.

“You have facial expressions, you have hand movements, you have motions ... everything just pulls into one and you just bring it out there for everybody to see,” Dong said. “That’s kind of my way of feeling heard.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nikkole Dong and dance partner Zachary Powell perform on stage at Grantsville High School during an end of year ballroom dance production on Thursday, May 4, 2023. Dong, 17, who has used dance to express herself since she was about 3, put her athleticism to test by joined the wrestling team, gaining strength and self-confidence in the process.

Broderick danced on Dong’s ballroom team and asked if she wanted to try wrestling. She asked her sister, Hailey, the same.

“What would people think?” Hailey Broderick thought. “That’s not me.”

“Oh, you’re crazy,” Dong reacted. “I could never actually do that.”

The pair joined around the same time, as did Fawson, who wanted to try wrestling as soon as she saw girls doing it at a meet. It didn’t take long for them to get hooked — and start winning.

Fawson won the 3A state individual championship last year in the 125-pound class. Dong took state in February at 130 pounds. Hailey Broderick is a back-to-back state champion at 155. Butler won state at 170 pounds in her first and last year as a high school wrestler.

Camargo wasn’t recruited by Mecham or Hannah Broderick. One of her friends wrestled on the boys’ team and suggested she try it. She watched some YouTube videos on wrestling and initially thought, “What is this sport?”

After one practice, Camargo still wasn’t sold. But she’s not a quitter and, because of that, stuck with it, even though she usually doesn’t go outside her comfort zone.

Camargo ended up winning first place at her first tournament. When the referee raised her hand in victory, she fell in love with the sport. She took second place in February’s state tournament at 105 pounds.

Wrestling is one of the more aggressive sports that exists. Cheerleading and dance require athleticism and skill, but the Grantsville girls would not say aggression is a main feature of those sports.

So from where do they summon the required tenancy to throw opponents around and pin them at all costs?

Camargo doesn’t consider herself an aggressive person in any way. She opts for peace over aggression and tension with others, she said. But when she’s on the mat, it’s a different story, a different person.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Grantsville High School senior Brielle Fawson, pictured on Thursday, May 4, 2023, found her athleticism in cheerleading to be a big asset in wrestling, winning the 3A state individual championship last year in the 125-pound class.

“A lot of the time I don’t even recognize myself wrestling just because you’re in such a deep, aggressive mindset,” Camargo said. “And then when you get out of it, I’m like, ‘I don’t even know who she is.’ … I don’t know where the aggression comes from. I guess it just comes [from] somewhere deep down.”

Fawson said her aggression in wrestling comes from cheerleading, where she is at the base of a group putting all their strength and attention on holding, throwing and catching teammates doing stunts in midair.

“That perseverance kind of transferred into wrestling where I had to learn kind of like, OK, I’m using different muscles, I’m using a different kind of strength, but it’s the same kind of perseverance — keep going when you’re exhausted,” Fawson said.

Taking down gender roles

Dong has experienced people telling her she should leave wrestling to the boys and the sport isn’t for her. She’s had moms give her “nasty, weird looks” at tournaments.

Hailey Broderick’s prom date was told she was a two-time state champion wrestler and still thought he could beat her.

“I just put him in his place and shoved his face in the ground,” Hailey Broderick said. “It was pretty cool.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Grantsville High School wrestlers Hailey Broderick, left, and Addison Butler work a number of drills during a recent practice at school on Tuesday, May 9, 2023. Broderick’s background in cheerleading and Butler who plays softball and tennis have seen their physical interests to be a good asset when going to the mat.

The Grantsville girls have heard it all before. They know the perception exists that just because they’re girls, they can’t possibly be wrestlers. And that perception is even more prevalent for the few on the team who are also cheerleaders and dancers.

When girls in Camargo’s ballet community found out she wrestles, they were “so shocked.”

“Nobody expects it,” Camargo said. “And then you show them your muscles and they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s where they came from.’”

In practice, they’re just teenage girls who discovered a new sport. But what might be occurring as a result is learning that traditional gender roles don’t matter.

“I do firmly believe … that the world is completely shifting from the husband goes to work, the wife stays at home — and same within sports,” Fawson said.

In cheerleading and dancing, girls generally are asked to wear makeup, do their hair and showcase their smile. But wrestlers wear singlets that can make some feel self-conscious, and their weights are displayed and said aloud by announcers.

When they considered joining the wrestling team, Butler and Hailey Broderick each made a list of pros and cons — and each of them listed people knowing their weight as a con.

But through the sport, their insecurities about their bodies melted away.

“That doesn’t matter to me now,” Butler said about her weight. “That’s not something that I actively think about.”

Dong said she used to look at her dancing peers that looked smaller than she and used to think, “It’d be nice to be like her.” She lost some weight and gained muscle through wrestling, but also gained more self-confidence.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Grantsville High School wrestler Nikkole Dong, left, pulls down teammate Sophia Camargo during a recent practice bout at school on Tuesday, May 9, 2023. Their athleticism and strength from a background in dance and ballet has been a major asset when competing on the mat.

“It taught me to just love myself for who I am, and just be grateful and accept who I am, what I am,” Dong said. “I don’t really look at size or shape too much anymore because I know I don’t have to to fit in to do my sport.”

The Grantsville girls have found their experiences with wrestling to be overwhelmingly positive. If they knew of a girl who wanted to wrestle but felt hesitant to try, their message is, “Do it.”

And even though the girls performed back handsprings, pirouettes and chassés before ever learning cradles, half nelsons and arm bars, wrestling hasn’t negatively affected their sense of womanhood.

“I just think it’s really cool that there’s not that many girls that wrestle and it just shocks people when they hear that you do wrestling,” Camargo said. “It does feel empowering that you do a sport that typically guys do.”

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