Former elite wrestler and combat veteran Sally Roberts delivered a powerful message of empowerment for the emerging sport of women’s wrestling to a group of Gov. Mifflin and Wyomissing wrestlers earlier this week at Shillington.
One of the wrestlers in attendance was Mifflin’s two-time girls state champion Jayleah Pletz, who noted that the talk was inspiring and relatable.
“She’s really inspirational,” Pletz said. “She had a lot of life lessons that she wanted to share with us about how wrestling has helped her and I feel the same in a lot of ways. Wrestling has taught me a lot of life lessons and I don’t know where I would be without it.”
Roberts is the founder and CEO of Wrestle Like a Girl, which, according to its website, has a mission to empower girls and women using the sport of wrestling to become leaders in life. She spoke for 45 minutes on topics ranging from female empowerment in sports, financial self-reliance and the importance of maintaining a driving sense of perseverance.
Prior to her talk, Roberts expressed the need for women’s wrestling to grow to a point where it can stand on its own in light of those who object to women participating alongside men in the sport.
“I’m oftentimes reminded that people don’t dislike girls and women’s wrestling, they dislike the idea of boys and girls wrestling together,” said Roberts, 41. “And so being able to grow enough so that we have enough girls and women to stand as its own sport, that’s what’s really going to be the lightning rod of what continues to change.
“And because when we see girls wrestling girls, their confidence increases and their injury rates go down, and what they’re getting out of the sport is so much and it’s so valuable.”
The PIAA in February granted girls wrestling “Emerging Sport” status at the high school level. The PIAA requires 100 schools to have sanctioned programs before a sport becomes official. That number is at 37, though 131 schools had at least one girl participating in the winter. In Berks, Mifflin, Exeter, Brandywine Heights and Berks Catholic have sanctioned programs, but there are female wrestlers who compete at other county schools.
Pletz, who wrestles on the boys and girls teams at Mifflin, also discussed changing the stigma surrounding women’s wrestling and encouraged others to give the sport a try despite any preconceived reservations.
“It’s not scary at all,” Pletz said when asked about recruiting other girls to wrestle. “I’m kind of used to it by now because I grew up with these guys, but at first it was a little scary. But once you get comfortable and you make friends, it’s just like any other sport and you can learn a lot from it.”
Roberts also spoke at length about her personal journey with women’s wrestling, which began, she said, when she was a teenage delinquent living in Seattle whose only option to avoid attending a juvenile detention center was to take up a sport.
“I tried out for the girls sports, softball, basketball, volleyball, and I got cut from every single one of them; in fact, I was told I was not athletic enough,” Roberts said during the opening minutes of her presentation. “So here I was a 13-year-old girl that was begging for an opportunity to participate in something, anything, and I was being told no.
“And I looked at the list of afterschool offerings, and I said, ‘Okay, well wrestling is a no-cut sport, so as long as I go out and wrestle, and I don’t quit, that means I’m not going to jail.’ That was literally how I got started in sport, because I had no other options.”
Prior to serving in the Army as a special operations soldier for six years in Afghanistan, Roberts wrestled throughout junior high and high school with great success and purpose. After the Olympic committee announced that women’s wrestling would be an official sport in 2003, Roberts personally sought out U.S Women’s wrestling head coach Terry Steiner and asked for a spot as a resident at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Steiner originally informed Roberts that there were no spots available, but ultimately gave her six months’ housing at the center as a chance to prove herself because he admired her ambition.
She wound up staying as a resident for eight years, during which she was a three-time national champion, a world cup champion, a two-time world bronze medalist and an Olympic alternate before volunteering to join the Army.
Now with a master’s in Sport and Performance Psychology from the University of the Rockies, Roberts is one of the primary advocates for women’s wrestling. She said she hopes to inspire others by using her story as a way to show that wrestling can be a positive outlet for girls.
“To understand the impact of the work that we’re doing at a national level, the impact that’s being had at the grassroots is incredibly important,” Roberts said. “Being able to speak on behalf of girls and women and wrestling and specifically speaking to these girls and women, for me, it’s the reason that I get to do my job.”
In addition to explaining how wrestling has impacted her life, Roberts also discussed the progress that has been made in recent years towards growing the sport for women.
“Over the past seven years, we’ve gone from six states with sanctions to 34 states,” Roberts said regarding the number of states that have sanctioned high school championships for women’s wrestling. “And we’ve seen wrestling at the collegiate level grow, as we now have over 115 college programs that offer varsity women’s wrestling programs.
“So just this entire landscape has shifted from a sport that people didn’t consider to be for girls and women, to saying, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s not only for girls and women, but it’s now one of the fastest growing sports in the United States.’ ”
Pletz, who said she has been wrestling since elementary school, also expressed positivity regarding the sport’s growth at the junior high and high school levels.
“I remember when I was in elementary school there were one or two girls on my team and when I got to middle school we probably had the biggest team,” Pletz said. “And even going to the state tournaments, you can go and you can see a competition getting a lot better; like a lot of the freshmen and underclassmen are starting to win more that it’s just showing how they’ve probably been doing it longer and getting more experience because they bought into it early.”
Regarding the barriers to growing wrestling, Roberts said that she believes that providing more diverse opportunities at all levels is one of the biggest keys to increasing the popularity of women’s wrestling.
“We know that we need in-state institutions to be able to provide opportunities for girls and women that may not have the financial resources to go to private school,” Roberts said. “We know that we want to have a lot of schools that have Division I, II and III programs here in the state of Pennsylvania so that the girls don’t have to leave home to go to college.
“And so it’s really being able to offer that plethora of opportunities where they can determine what is the best fit for them, because that’s really what we want.”
By providing more state-sponsored scholarships and wrestling programs, Roberts seems to be confident that more girls will continue to get involved as the sport progressively becomes more visible.
If there’s anyone that wants to step into the position of coach and open the door of opportunity for those girls and women, we’re so incredibly grateful and thank you very much.”