Hawkeye Wrestling Club members Rachel Watters (left) and Jordan Nelson (second left) as well as Alex Marinelli (second right) and Abe Assad (right) listen during a press conference announcing the addition of women’s wrestling as an inter-varsity program at the University of Iowa at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa on Thursday, September 23, 2021. Iowa is the first NCAA Division I, Power Five conference institution to offer this sport. (Jim Slosiarek / The Gazette)
IOWA CITY – The University of Iowa has long been a leader in the wrestling world.
The Hawkeyes just won their 24th NCAA Division I tag team title and their 37th Big Ten Conference crown. Fifty-five wrestlers gathered for 85 national titles. Eighteen have made 21 appearances on Olympic teams, including eight medalists and five gold.
Iowa ranks among the leaders in attendance, setting records when Grapple on the Gridiron was seen by 42,287 fans at Kinnick Stadium and as host of the 2012 United States Olympic Team Trials and 2016.
Former Hawkeye Simon Roberts was also the first black NCAA champion, winning the 147-pound title in 1957.
Now Iowa has taken another step to pave the way for others to follow. Athletics Director Gary Barta announced Thursday that she will become the first Power-5 school to add women’s wrestling. Iowa is the third DI program to launch women’s wrestling programs, joining Presbyterian (SC) College and Sacred Heart (Conn.) University.
Iowa has increased the number of athletic programs to 22, including 14 for women. The plan is that a search for national coaches begins this fall and the program begins competing for the 2023-24 season. It is the first women’s sport added to Iowa since football in 1996.
“I think everyone here is fully aware of our history and our tradition on the male side,” Barta said at the press conference. “It’s part of the fabric of Iowa, the DNA of the University of Iowa when you look historically at conference and national championships, the Olympic gold medal, everything from Gable to Brands, everything else.
“What you may not be as familiar with is the explosive emergence of women and girls struggling not only across the country but across our state as well.”
Iowa coach Tom Brands noted the excitement over the news of a sport that received emerging NCAA status last year.
Female members of the Hawkeye Wrestling Club and current Hawkeye wrestlers attended the announcement. He congratulated Assistant Director of Sport and Senior Women’s Administrator Barbara Burke for her efforts to make this a reality.
The effects will be wide for both men and women.
“The women’s wrestling is great,” said Brands. “It’s great for women. There are little girls across the country and around the world who are going to see it. It’s so impactful.
“Let me tell you something about how this affects men. It strengthens the male program. Women’s wrestling, since its inception, has always improved men’s wrestling, it always has. There is a correlation there, and it is documented.
Barta said Brands has been pushing for a women’s wrestling program since hosting the Olympic trials. He also said he saw it on radar. A new multi-million dollar wrestling facility slated to begin construction in the spring of 2022 has been designed to accommodate female wrestlers as well as the Hawkeyes and HWC men’s team.
When we started to design this probably about two years ago, we intentionally included a female facility in this training facility hoping that at some point we could add this sport, ”Barta said.
Women’s wrestling has grown in Iowa and across the country. Iowa has seen participation in the Iowa Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association Women’s State Tournament drop from 87 participants at its inaugural event in 2019 to 250 next year and 450 for a two-day competition in January. .
The sport is still not sanctioned at the high school level in the state of Iowa.
“I think in the state of Iowa it’s a given,” Brands said. “I know there are people in this room who work hard. Let’s not get around the problem. There’s a little quarrel over who’s going to own it, what organization.
“Get over this quarrel. You know what, team up, let’s use some common sense here and have a high school tournament for these girls. They have earned it enough and they need it. I need it.”
Currently, 100 women’s wrestling programs exist. Twenty-five NCAA Division II schools and 20 Division III schools have women’s programs. The NAIA, which is one step ahead of women’s programs, has 40, and a dozen JUCO schools have women’s teams.
Rachel Watters wrestled in high school at Ballard and at the NAIA level. She recently joined HWC to pursue her freestyle career and ranks among the senior level competitors. The women have had the opportunity to train at the Olympic Training Center and at smaller schools, but this is a huge boost in importance.
“Everywhere I go it’s an exciting new thing for people,” Watters said. “I’m usually the first they meet. Having a Power 5 program in women’s wrestling shows that it is a sport that is here to stay. We want to put it there. We are proud of the sport and want people to see it.
Iowa will face a huge burden to get it right. As the first Power 5 school with a program for women, Iowa will create a plan for others to follow. Done correctly and the female varsity wrestling could flourish. If it is not done well, the sport will suffer.
The list should consist of 30 to 35 wrestlers. Barta will rely on Brands as a sounding board, but once the women’s program is operational, it will be independent.
“Our program will be run the same way,” Brands said of the men’s program. “Women will have their own hours of training. Women will have their own head coach. Women will have their own structure. The women will carry out their program as they see fit.
“We are going to hire a coach, he will be the best coach in America. And be careful because when those steps start to be taken, we’re at step one here, but you’re looking at the natural next steps, and that next step is the coach we hire, that’s going to be their schedule.
Brands continued, “The stakes are high for the new coach. We will fight against the best competition in the United States. We will be recruiting incredible young talents who are already winning international age group championships and medals at the cadet and junior levels. This will be our recruiting pool. To be the first is huge. Being the first has an impact. This is where we are at.