As Western’s wrestling team huddles before each meet, teammates place their hands together before chanting: “Losers complain, champions train.”
One hand stands out from the rest, each fingernail decorated with colorful polish.
Senior Kay-Ci Bele, a first-year wrestler for the varsity team, is an ASICS/Vaughn Jr. & Cadet Fargo All-American, Body Bar All-American and two-time Florida girls’ state champion.
Because girls’ wrestling isn’t a Florida High School Athletic Association-sanctioned sport, Bele and junior Kaylie Podesta compete with the boys.
Tatiana Yniquez and Stephanie Guerra wrestle for Piper, and Tianna Micklewhite represents Miramar. A few Miami-Dade schools, including Braddock, also field female wrestlers.
Although the girls don’t mind wrestling boys, they would prefer their own league that crowns the best girls as champs each season.
“When I first came here I was a stick in the mud, sat in the corner with my arms crossed,” said Bele, who was on junior varsity last season before earning a spot on varsity by winning a wrestle-off. “I really didn’t want to be part of what was going on.”
According to the National Wrestling Coaches Association’s website, there were 7,351 high school female wrestlers in 2011. In 1979, there were none. The 2004 Olympics marked the inauguration of women’s wrestling, boosting numbers. Participation is higher than NCAA-sponsored sports such as crew, fencing, skiing and rifle.
Bele’s father, Dory Bele, kept nudging his daughter toward wrestling over the course of a few years, insisting it would help her with jiu-jitsu. When she was younger, Kay-Ci tried everything from ballet to basketball to horseback riding.
“For me, it doesn’t matter if it’s academics or athletics, I just encourage my kids to do their best with their God-given talents,” Dory Bele said. “If they get an opportunity to do something, just do the best you can while you have it and enjoy it.”
But for many, like Podesta, parents can initially express feelings of confusion and anger. Even though Podesta spent nine years boxing, she decided to join the wrestling team as a new student fresh out of home school.
“My mom — she always wanted her daughter to be a cheerleader or girly-girl kind,” said Podesta, who wrestles at 136 pounds for Western’s junior varsity team. “She was really surprised when I said I wanted to try this. But they’re very supportive now that they see I can do it.”
A few months ago when the referee raised Podesta’s arm — signaling her as the victor — her male opponent cried. The same thing happened when Bele beat a guy for the first time at a JV tournament hosted by South Broward last year.
Wrestling against guys, Bele and Podesta admit, can be advantageous because some of the boys are unsure of where they can touch the girls, worrying whether it might be inappropriate. Their wish, however, is that the boys treat them like guys on the mat.
“The best feeling is just being able to dominate like a guy in a sport that’s supposed to be a man’s sport,” said Bele, who has an 8-15 record with Western against boys this season but ranks among the top girls in the country.
“It was worthwhile because for the longest time I had been losing so many matches. To finally get my hand raised, it showed I was improving and that I wasn’t actually wasting my time.”
Western coach Charlie Morgan has had five female wrestlers over his 11 years at the school.
Karolyn Sickles, his first and only four-year female wrestler, went on to compete for Davidson College’s men’s team before injuring her shoulder. During his tenure, Morgan has noticed a trend: girls with a background in contact sports.
“I treat them no different,” Morgan said. “They have the same expectations. I have to remind them that they are young ladies, though, around a bunch of boys.”
Yet weight, already a taboo subject among teenage girls, plays a prominent role in wrestlers’ lives. They must constantly watch what they eat in order to make their respective divisions. And unlike their male counterparts, the girls also must deal with feminine issues each month.
Bele, who used to weigh 150 pounds, now competes at either 126 or 132. She credits the sport for putting a positive spin on maintaining weight. She stays away from junk food such as ice cream.
This past weekend, the pair competed at the Girls’ High School Folkstyle Wrestling Tournament, which is not an FHSAA-sanctioned event. With 167 girls in attendance — up by 20 percent over previous years — Bele captured the title at 126 pounds.
Some high schools in the Orlando area, including Cypress Creek, field all-girl teams and hold tournaments. There are 12 weight classes, starting at 97 pounds and ending at 220. Generally, the lower the weight, the more girls listed in the class.
“Losing to a guy is OK because they can say ‘A guy beat you up,’ ” said Podesta, who had never wrestled a girl. “But if you lose to another girl, that’s a horrible feeling. It’s going to be way more intense. You don’t want to be weaker than another girl.”
Even so, the hope is the FHSAA will add girls’ wrestling as a separate sport. Stuart Mahler, vice chairman and national teams director of the Florida Amateur Wrestling Association Inc., doesn’t think “Florida’s that far away.”
Five states already offer girls’ varsity high school wrestling championships: Washington, California, Hawaii, Texas and Massachusetts. Tennessee will hold exhibitions this year, and Michigan might be next. In 2006, sophomore Michaela Hutchison from Alaska became the first girl in the nation to win a state wrestling title against boys.
“The problem is that most of the guys who are in charge of things are guys between 35 and 60 who still have ‘It’s a man’s world mentality,’ ” said Kent Bailo, director of the United States Girls’ Wrestling Association. “They don’t do anything unless they’re forced.”
Until then, Podesta will continue to wear hairnets, leading some to mistake her for a boy. Bele will continue to dye her pixie cut shades of blue before meets.
“I love when I’m wrestling against guys and there’s always moms,” said Bele, who is mulling offers from colleges such as Jamestown (N.D.). “It doesn’t matter if that’s their kid. They’ll cheer for me. ‘Go girl! I don’t know your name! Just pin him!’ ”