On the wall alongside the Granville High School wrestling room’s entrance door, there are seven stickered photos of wrestlers, each accompanied by a name and their weight.

Dain Steffeny. Christian Price. Luciano Mendicino. Mathieu Holt. Keegan Van Meter. Douglas Terry. Carson Miller.

Credit: Jack Nimesheim

Each one is a former Blue Ace standout, earning medals and honors from the Ohio High School Athletic Association state wrestling tournament during their years at GHS. 

The winners are shown grappling, cheering their victories and pinning their opponents. And some day, 13-year-old Emily Bilinski’s and 14-year-old Kasey Iden’s photos will be up there too. 

The girls joined the Granville Middle School wrestling team this year with plans to buck the gender trend and goals to someday earn a college wrestling scholarship. 

They joined the team despite knowing that all of their teammates would be boys. 

“I’m doing a unique sport for women, and I’m proud of that,” Bilinski said last week. “I’m not gonna let the fact that it’s a male-dominated sport get in the way of what I want to do with my life.”

They are local evidence of a national trend: More girls picking up the physically grueling sport. In the 2022-2023 season, 49,127 girls participated in high school wrestling according to FloWrestling. That’s more than triple the number of girls who participated in the 2016-2017 school year, when 14,587 girls were involved in the sport, according to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame

And it’s significantly more than in 1990, when just 112 girls around the United States were on their high school wrestling teams.

Since joining the wrestling team, Bilinski and Iden have had to overcome challenges on and off the mat. As they have developed their grappling skills throughout the season, they have simultaneously grown more comfortable in their identity as female wrestlers.

For Iden, the first obstacle came before the season even started. The eighth grader had her heart set on trying wrestling. Bilinski signed up for the team, too, but she was on the fence about actually following through with it. Iden had to convince her, even though the two did not know each other.

“I was like, ‘Well, it’s both our first year. They’re not gonna respect us off the bat, because we’re girls. We need to stick together. That way, we have each other for our first year, so we can get used to it. That way, we’re not alone,’” Iden said.

The sales pitch worked. But even after practices started, Bilinski had hesitations about sticking it out. Wrestling requires more physical endurance than typical youth sports, and she learned that the hard way when she threw up after a tough conditioning drill. She contemplated quitting.

Then, she thought about the pictures on the wall.

While trying to learn the nuances of a sport known for its emphasis on technique, Bilinski and Iden also faced judgment from peers. Both have been made fun of by other girls at school for being wrestlers.

“It used to bother me, but it doesn’t anymore because now I am proud of it,” Bilinski said.

As their passion for wrestling grew throughout the season, their results on the mat improved. 

Back in December, Bilinski placed third at a River Valley tournament. Earlier in January, she picked up another bronze medal in Fredericktown, and on Sunday, Jan. 29, she earned her first silver medal at the New Lexington Middle School Girls Invitational. Iden recorded a victory by pin in the same tournament, following up a dual match victory on Thursday and another pin at Fredericktown.

More importantly, they have learned that process, rather than immediate results, will drive them toward long-term success.

“I’m starting to realize that success isn’t just getting wins,” Iden said. “It’s building your technique and building your stamina. It took me all season to learn that. No one wants to lose. Nobody wants that feeling of losing and not getting your hand held up. Everyone wants to win. But you have to work for it.”

On Saturday, Feb. 3, Bilinski and Iden will close out the school season in the Paul Kaiser Junior High Wrestling Invitational, a coed tournament. They will have a shot at earning victories and medals. 

Regardless of the outcomes, though, they will be inching toward bigger goals: Bilinski a spot on the state placer wall, Iden a college wrestling scholarship and both of them an influence on girls in Granville who are interested in wrestling but hesitant to try it.

Jack Nimesheim writes for TheReportingProject.org, the nonprofit news organization of Denison University’s Journalism program, which is sponsored in part by the Mellon Foundation and donationsfrom readers. Sign up for The Reporting Project newsletter here.