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.”