On an early-December evening, it’s business as usual in Columbia High School's wrestling room. Located in a tiny corner of the school’s gym, the door to the room swings open at a near-rhythmic pace.
One wrestler heads to grab some ice for a sore elbow. Another darts into an adjacent room to grab a tissue for a bloody nose — wrestling practice staples that have been a part of the sport’s practices since it started in Ohio in 1938.
But this year, the monotony of practice means a little more for area high school wrestling teams, as this season, every member of the team is working together for a shared goal. Last January, the Ohio High School Athletic Association officially sanctioned girls wrestling as a sport. Ohio becomes the 33rd state to do so. Previously, girls competed against boys if they wanted a shot at OHSAA recognition.
This March, the OHSAA hosts its first-ever state tournament dedicated to female wrestlers. The competition is being held in tandem with the boys tournament at the Schottenstein Center.
The vote was a long time coming for Hannah Ferry, who is in her first year as Columbia’s girls wrestling coach. When Ferry wrestled at Vermilion High School 10 years ago, she was the only girl on the Sailors’ wrestling team. Now she gets the opportunity to lead a team full of wrestlers who look like her.
“I went from being on a team of all guys to seeing a team of girls dedicated to the sport,” Ferry says.
Parts of the Raiders’ journey this season has been documented in Unsanctioned, a documentary series being produced by Northeast Ohio native Ryan Kelly and Transition Studios.
The project gained steam last winter when Kelly was flipping through an alumni pamphlet from Lutheran High School West. A few weeks after reading a story about the Longhorns becoming the first school in Ohio to field a full girls team, Kelly found himself at the team’s practice learning more about the fight to sanction girl’s wrestling.
“I quickly realized the story was a lot bigger than just their school,” Kelly says.
After attending last year’s state girls wrestling tournament, Kelly and Transition expanded the scope of the documentary to include other teams.
“The discipline it takes to not just wrestle but to also fight for the legitimacy of your sport is incredible,” Kelly says. “They’re doing two things at once that are so difficult to do.”
There had always been a grassroots effort pushing to sanction girls wrestling in Ohio, but the movement gained momentum in February 2020 when the Ohio High School Wrestling Coaches Association held the first state tournament.
At the time of the first girls state tournament in 2020, there were 474 girls wrestling in Ohio. Now, the number has eclipsed 800.
“When we talked to people on the national level, they told us that the sport’s numbers would grow if it got sanctioned," Kelly says. "They weren’t lying."
Unsanctioned features Elyria High School's Riley Banyas, a 100-pound wrestler who’s qualified for all three of the Coaches Association girls tournaments. The Pioneers are led by first-year coach Armando Torres, who took over last fall
after Elyria Wrestling legend Erik Burnett retired. Along with taking over the boys team, Torres’ first year at the helm for the Pioneers has also included helping coach Elyria’s inaugural girls team, which is composed of Banyas and six girls who had never wrestled before.
“When I was wrestling, we only had girls on the stat crew," Torres says, "but now the sport’s growing in a way where they can compete in an equal and fair way, which is awesome because now wrestling families can truly be wrestling
Ferry and fellow girls' wrestling coaches from around the state are hoping that success will
result in a trip to Columbus in March for this year’s state tournament.
There, after years of wrestling against boys and having to hold a separate state tournament, Ohio’s girls wrestlers finally get their moment in the spotlight.
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