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Summer Olympics to Include Women's Wrestling - 2004-06-25

The United States' wrestling team is sending four female athletes to compete in the first-ever Olympic wrestling competition between women.

The sport of wrestling is among the oldest in history, but has long been considered a men's sport. Women have been wrestling at national and world championship matches for almost two decades, but never at the Olympic games, until now.

This year, a team of four American women will break that barrier, along with about 40 of their counterparts from around the world.

The achievement has been a long time coming. Coach Tricia Saunders has been fighting for years to get women's wrestling into the Olympic games. She began wrestling when she was eight years old, but was banned from the sport when she turned 12.

"It was real disappointing because it was the team my brothers wrestled on, my teammate wrestled on who I had beaten. I was a four-time state champ and regional national champ. And my town had a meeting and said, 'We are not letting her on this team. No way, no how.' And it held, and I didn't wrestle anymore," she recalls.

She began wrestling again when she turned 23 and has since earned eight national titles and three gold medals at World Championship matches, but those memories remain.

"Why can you sit and teach history to both girls and boys and then walk into the wrestling room and kick your students out of the room and not teach them this? Why are they allowed to learn history and math, or you can teach them how to run and swim, but you can't teach them how to wrestle? I still don't really get that," she adds.

Many of the women on the Olympic team spent years developing their skills by wrestling against boys, because women's teams were non-existent. A communications representative for the women's Olympic wrestling team, Gary Abbott, says now the number of women wrestlers in the United States is on the rise.

"We have probably about 5000-6000 females wrestling, in comparison to maybe three quarters of a million men, so it's a much smaller part of the wrestling community but it's something that's growing very quickly. But there are still parts of the United States and the world where the idea of women wrestling is still new and something that people are still learning about," he says.

The opportunity to figure so prominently in an historic moment is not lost on 25-year-old Olympic wrestler Patricia Miranda. At 48 kilograms she will be among the first female wrestlers to compete for the United States because she is in the lightest weight category.

"I feel so honored for this chance," she says. "I know a lot of men and women have been working for decades really to get us included in the games I feel I'm one of the lucky ones that gets to step out on the stage for the first time. But I owe a lot to them. I feel very indebted."

She says she has grown accustomed to hearing people make jokes about women wrestlers. Now, she says, she has a chance to win over anyone who doesn't believe women's wrestling is a serious sport.

"We get a lot of that, you know, mud-wrestling comments, but my attitude has devolved," she says. "I don't really mind what brings them to watch, whether or not it is that they know women can be tough and love their sport or if it's that they look sexy in a singlet. Whatever reason they come to watch, I believe if they watch for more than two or three minutes they are really going to be won over by the tragedy and the triumph that they see in the middle of our matches."

Her teammate, 21-year-old Toccara Montgomery, weighs 72 kilograms and competes in the heaviest weight category. Her coach calls her a "powerhouse." Ms. Montgomery says she is ready to go.

"I may not be as fast as other girls but like, pound-for-pound and strength-wise I think I'm a really, really powerful wrestler. I hit things hard. Not as fast, but definitely harder than anybody else," she notes.

She exudes calm and confidence, but her enthusiasm is contagious and she says wrestling has made her the person she is today.

"It really, it teaches you a lot about yourself, a lot of self-confidence, self-respect and things like that," she explains. "And it is something you don't really find in team sports, like you can always blame somebody else for not making the basket or catching the ball or something like that. But in wrestling if you don't step up it is solely your responsibility."

The Olympic women's wrestling competition is scheduled for the second week of the Olympic Games, which begin August 14 in Athens.