Changing the Game

Thurston wrestler Denise Binford wins her match against Ontario’s Abby Osei to advance to the finals of the 2019 OSAA Wrestling State Championships Feb. 23, 2019, in Portland, Ore.

Meet the new generation of women wrestlers redefining the sport

Words by Darienne Stiyer and Griffin Reilly  | Photos by Alex Powers

Pinned on her stomach with almost zero mobility, Denise Binford still looked calm. Her eyes still saw the gold.

Her opponent, Abby Osei of Ontario High, had come out on the offensive. She pinned Binford over and over and tried to put her in a corner. No matter the position, however, Binford didn’t seem to be losing steam. Or confidence, for that matter.

Binford stretches while Thurston assistant coach Guy Harris talks to an official before a match at the state high school wrestling championship in Portland, Ore.

She locked eyes with her coaches, only a few feet away on the sidelines. They screamed instructions to her, demonstrating different methods she could use to escape the hold. Osei was growing noticeably tired.

Now in the third round of the match, the two had been wrestling for over five minutes — the longest girls’ match of the tournament thus far.

This was where Binford had her advantage. In a quick series of moves, she escaped her hold, spun around and pinned Osei. Just like that, the match was over. The referee grabbed Binford’s left hand and raised it into the air.

She was headed to the state finals.

It wouldn’t have been easy to guess that this was Binford’s first year wrestling, let alone her first time competing at state. Her eyes were stone cold, like those of an Olympian seeking a gold medal.

The arena was packed, and 11 other matches simultaneously took place around her. The colors of dozens of Oregon high schools decorated the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, an arena that once held the 1977 NBA champion Portland Trail Blazers. It could’ve been so easy to get distracted, so easy to let her eyes and ears wander.

But as Binford put her headphones back on, the lyrics of 21 Savage’s “No Heart” echoing in her head, she put herself in the mindset of a champion – of someone who was ready to make history.

Binford paces in a warmup area between matches at the state championship in Portland, Ore.

Binford is just one member of the girls wrestling team at Thurston High School who is changing the sport in the state of Oregon. Thurston’s girls team features 28 wrestlers — the largest in the state for the third year in a row. Women’s participation in the traditionally male-dominated sport is growing in high schools across the state. Many first-time all-girl teams, like Lincoln High School’s thirteen-girl squad, are showing up to help make a lasting impact on the sport.

“I believe women’s wrestling will save the sport,” John Farinola, Lincoln’s boys and girls wrestling head coach, said. “The best thing it’s done has been to create an excitement around the sport again – for both boys and girls.”

This year, the Oregon State Activities Association officially sanctioned girls wrestling as a varsity sport for the first time in its history. At the state championships, held Feb. 23 in Portland, Oregon, girls’ and boys’ matches were held simultaneously on 12 different mats scattered across the arena. And in the tunnels beneath the Coliseum, boys and girls alike spoke with coaches and rehearsed moves alongside one another. There was no feeling of discomfort between genders, nor were there any signs of self-segregation.

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, in Oregon, from 2010 to 2018, girls’ participation in high school wrestling increased by an unprecedented 260 percent, almost 100 percent more than the national increase during that time. In Oregon, boys’ participation decreased by 16.5 percent during that same span, compared to the 10 percent decrease nationally.

The statistics certainly paint a convincing picture of a potential female takeover for wrestling. Or, at the very least, the huge spike in participation speaks to a much-needed revitalization of dwindling interest in the sport. In the past few years, the culture of the sport has undergone a speedy and significant change thanks to the arrival of girls on the mats.

“At first it was difficult for the boys to adjust to the girls being in the room, but the girls let it be known that they WANTED to be there,” Natalie Nichols, an assistant coach at Thurston, said.

The transition to acceptance hasn’t been easy, but the boys themselves have slowly become more accustomed to having female competitors in the room with them. Hunter Harwood, a wrestler on Thurston’s boys team, didn’t hesitate to detail the true character of his female counterparts.

“They’re studs. Badasses,” he said. Harwood’s teammates smiled and nodded in agreement.

“[The girls] are more flexible, they pin in different positions that are like, how did you even do that? How did you get out of that?”

Binford, along with many of her teammates and opponents, embraces her “badass” reputation. A bruise prominently displayed on her upper-left cheek gleamed with pride like a military service ribbon. She said she got it from wrestling practice when one of her male teammates slammed her head into the mats on a takedown. But she just shrugged it off.  

For Macie Stewart, a former Thurston wrestler, one of her favorite parts about the sport was the opportunity to be tough. She said that being able to beat people up was fun, especially because everyone is still friends after, bruises and all. Her love for the sport drove Stewart to continue wrestling in college at Southern Oregon University, even after initially retiring from the sport following high school.

“My last ever match, or what I thought would be my last ever match, was extremely emotional,” Stewart said. “After it was over, I cried for the remainder of the state tournament. I was burnt out at the end of high school, but my mindset changed after missing it in college. This time I was doing it just for me; it was my decision.”

At Thurston, girls often begin their time in the wrestling program as statisticians and assistants for the boys’ matches. But often after just a short time working stats, assistant coach Nichols said, many of the girls are enthusiastic to try their own hand at the sport.

“At Thurston we call them the ‘Stat Squad Fight Club,’” Nichols said jokingly.

Malea Palahniuk, a senior on the Thurston squad, is one of the girls who transitioned from statistician to wrestler, doing what Nichols calls “jumping the table.”

“If there was a space for it, I wasn’t going to pass that up,” Palahniuk said.

After being sidelined this season with a torn ACL and MCL, Palahniuk is looking ahead to college where she plans on continuing to wrestle.

“I feel like my time got cut short,” she said. “I’m not ready to be done.”

In the past, this space for girls’ wrestling wasn’t as easily accessible; the somewhat-covert treatment of girls’ matches held girls back from joining.

“The sport used to be more separate, more secretive,” Nichols said. “Girls would go weigh-in in a side room somewhere, away from everyone else. They would fight in different rooms like they were being hidden.”  

Another major issue for schools is that girls often have to deal with an ill-fitting boys’ singlet because of budget insufficiencies. When Lincoln’s girls team bought girls’ singlets for the first time, coach Farinola was shocked by the difference in fit, notably the thigh size.

“When they first tried them on I remember asking the girls, ‘Do they fit better?’ and they all responded, ‘Well, yeah, my thighs don’t hurt anymore,’” Farinola said. “Turns out the boys’ singlets they’d been wearing really hurt their thighs, and I never knew.”

Binford, right, squares off with Cottage Grove’s Raina Herzog for the title in their weight class at the state high school wrestling championship.

He pointed out that the increased accessibility and market for female-cut singlets shows that the industry is taking women’s participation in the sport seriously.

Likewise, the Thurston coaches emphasized that the sport, and the stage, was theirs for the taking.

“They want to be on the big stage, not stuffed in corners or in closets,” Thurston assistant coach Guy Harris said. “They want to be great. It’s not even about winning. It’s about pride. It’s about being a ‘strong woman.’”

Denise Binford did not end up winning a state title at this year’s tournament. Her final bout against Cottage Grove’s Raina Herzog ended up being the last match of the whole tournament that day; at one point all eyes in the arena were focused on just the two of them as an announcer gave a play-by-play of their movements.

And, while immediately following the loss, Binford retreated to the tunnels for a minute to privately let out her frustration, she returned to embrace her opponent like a veteran competitor who’d been met with tough losses countless times before. The two hugged and joked with one another as if there had never been a time where they were at each other’s throats for glory.

Thurston coaches asserted that the girls had a far more prominent sense of sportsmanship than many of their male counterparts. After many of the boys’ fights, it was common to see a winner traipse around the mat celebrating as the loser bee-lined for the tunnel in which he could hide his shame.

With girls, they were proud just to be there. “They want to learn, they are eager in every sense of the word,” Nichols said.

Binford will likely be on this stage again in 2020, as will many more of her Thurston teammates. While for 99 years, the OSAA failed to recognize girls in varsity wrestling, the 100th year signified a changing of the guard. Binford and all the wrestlers she had faced that day belonged in this arena.

The sport was theirs for the taking.