Silence has swept through the Missouri Valley College women's wrestling team.
"We're not a nobody," yells Samantha Schuman, one of the team captains. Her plea pierces the quiet, but no one responds on this Sunday morning in January. Everyone is struggling against Oklahoma City University, including Valley's most talented wrestlers.
DUAL: When two teams compete for the ultimate victory.
MATCH: When the contestants oppose each other to earn points.
PIN: Holding the opponent on his or her back with one or both shoulders touching the mat for two seconds. It determines the winner of the match, awarding a team six points.
TAKE DOWN: Placing and controlling the opponent on the mat earns two points.
ESCAPE: Getting out of or reaching a neutral position from a take down earns one point.
REVERSAL: Gaining control of your opponent from a submissive position earns two points.
WEIGH-IN: The official record of a wrestler's weight at the beginning of a match to guarantee he or she can compete fairly in his or her weight class.
Samantha Fee, her light auburn hair bouncing with every move, keeps shifting and fighting in her match against OCU's Samantha Phillips. Her persistence keeps her in it until the final seconds.
But she can push no longer. She is driven out-of-bounds, surrendering the deciding point.
Amberlee Ebert, her nervous blue eyes ringed with black eyeliner, is stunned after losing to OCU's Ashley Sword. Ebert fell to the 24-year-old veteran, known as "Mama Sword" to her teammates, without scoring a point.
In the end, Ebert was defeated before the whistle blew. Her self-doubt overwhelmed her talent after her teammates told her Sword was questioning her ability.
Such murmurs have dogged women's wrestling for years. But they usually come from men shocked to see women taking up space on the mat. These traditionalists doubt women's talent and passion in a sport historically dominated by men. Female wrestlers have had to prove they are serious, dedicated athletes, not "nobodies" seeking attention by taking part in a "man's sport."
But silence no longer surrounds female wrestlers. The women's voices have been building for years, starting in elementary school and reaching now all the way to the Olympic medal stand. They are vocal and passionate about the sport, converting skeptics unfamiliar but open to their fervor. Now, instead of fighting for their right to participate in the sport, they can focus on the grind that tests and taxes every athlete - a season of competition.
The season has begun for Missouri Valley College on this snowy January weekend at the National Wrestling Coaches Association/Cliff Keen National Duals in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The team includes more than two dozen wrestlers, who come from such far-flung states as Hawaii, California, Texas and New Jersey to wrestle at the small school in Marshall, located 60 miles west of Columbia.
No Valley wrestler can match Fee's tireless passion. The sport rescued her from grieving over her father's death. She will continue to punish her body during the season in pursuit of her ultimate goal - competing in the Olympics.
No Valley wrestler will be as tested as Ebert this season. Although she lost to Sword in Iowa, she will have plenty of chances in the next few months to overcome her strong opponent and her own sensitive mind.
For now, the Valley wrestlers pack up their gear and retreat down the floor after their dual against OCU. They lost all 10 matches, from 44 kilograms (97 pounds) to 95 kilograms (205 pounds).
The wrestlers circle in the warm-up area while coach Carl Murphree breaks down the dual, addressing each wrestler about her bout.
Then the silence ends. Wrestlers speak up, suggesting how to bounce back from the embarrassing result.
"Don't be nice," Emily Rinehart says.
"There should be a lot more bloody noses and black eyes on this team than there are," she says.
• • •
Bloody noses and black eyes.
That's what Mike Machholz demanded when he started the Valley team in 1999.
He remembers his impassioned speech at the first practice. The short, broad-shouldered Marshall native did his best impersonation of the cranky manager Tom Hanks played in "A League of Their Own." There would be no crying in wrestling, paraphrasing Hanks' famous line to his women's baseball team.
"I'm not here to coach women or girls or men," Machholz recalls saying. "I'm here to coach wrestlers. If you can't get along, then you need to find another spot to be."
He watched the wrestlers respond.
"When I was having that kind of a conversation, I wanted to see reactions on faces - who didn't mind getting their nose in the middle of the fray and getting it bloodied, honestly," he said in his office at Valley.
Machholz knew how to build champions. He helped revive the men's program at Valley in 1991 and took over as head coach in 1994. Then he decided to tackle women's wrestling.
The establishment didn't take Machholz seriously.
"You get all the old cronies, ‘Oh, you're starting women's wrestling. Is there Jell-O involved? What's up?'" Machholz said. "I'm like, ‘Look, you knuckleheads. If you haven't seen them wrestle, then you need to go see them wrestle.'"
Women's wrestling started to emerge internationally during the 1980s. The first world championships took place in 1987. Wrestlers then received the ultimate validation. In 2001 the International Olympic Committee added the event to the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
But women's wrestling has remained unfamiliar to many. In 2002, USA Wrestling, the sport's governing body, was hiring its first national women's coach, who would run the women's program at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. It approached Terry Steiner, a young, ambitious assistant coach at Wisconsin. But he was skeptical right away.
"I didn't know women's wrestling," Steiner said. "For me, it was like stepping into baseball."
The three-time All-American from North Dakota did not know what to think. Coaching a men's college team had been his lifelong goal, but no prospects were opening up.
Wrestling with the decision, Steiner knew he could harbor no doubts. He would have to be a coach and an advocate. For once, the women would come first.
"The girls haven't had that for a long time. People were saying, ‘We'll support you. We're going to deal with the guys first. When we're done, we'll help you,'" Steiner said. "They didn't need that. They needed someone to stand up for them."
Still undecided, Steiner expressed his thoughts to his wife, Jodi.
"I don't like how you're thinking right now," Steiner recalled his wife saying.
"Why do you say that?" he asked.
"Because you got to realize it's at the beginning of something," she replied, harkening to her childhood in the late 1960s and early 1970s when she watched girls get heckled and booed while playing basketball.
Then she brought up their young daughter, Raven. Would Steiner want her to face the same ridicule and harassment? Would he want an opportunity denied to her?
"That's the one thing I want to give my daughter no matter what," Steiner said. "I want to give her the opportunity to do what she wants to do if it's good for her. If it's wrestling, so be it."
As he presumed, Steiner now not only coaches women, but also advocates for them. Many coaches are still not convinced women belong.
"A lot of coaches think having girls in our sport hurts our sport, but I couldn't disagree more," Steiner said. "How can a sport like wrestling that fights for media attention, that fights for sponsorship, that fights for attendance, that fights for everything - how can inviting another half of the population into our sport hurt it?"
Wrestling and women's sports have had a tenuous relationship. Scores of men's teams have been cut in the past three decades. Some blame the decline on Title IX, the federal legislation that ensures equal opportunities for men and women in education. Claiming Title IX imposed an unlawful quota system forcing colleges to cut wrestling teams, the National Wrestling Coaches Association filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education in 2002. The U.S. District Court of Appeals dismissed the suit, and the Supreme Court upheld that decision without hearing the case.
But with an invitation to compete, more and more girls and women are wrestling. Only 112 girls competed on high school teams in 1990, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. In 2000, the number expanded to 2,500, and it doubled last year to more than 5,000. But that figure should probably be higher. Only 30 states submitted girls wrestling figures in the latest NFSHSA survey.
With limited numbers, girls usually wrestle against boys in high school, achieving the greatest success in the lower weight classes. But the stereotype of the lone girl on a team is not current anymore. ESPN recently profiled a state champion high school team in Michigan with two girls.
But girls don't have to wait until college to wrestle each other. They were brought together in 1998 when Kent Bailo founded the United States Girls' Wrestling Association and organized national championships and other regional tournaments. Only four states - Hawaii, Washington, Oregon and Texas - now have sanctioned state tournaments for girls.
Collegiate wrestling was not far behind. In 1999, USA Wrestling was pushing for women's collegiate wrestling. Confident the Olympics would add the sport, the organization wanted to develop medal contenders, but opportunities were scarce. Minnesota-Morris had the only women's team, formed in 1994. But it disbanded along with the men's team in 2004.
With a lack of red tape compared with the NCAA, NAIA schools such as Valley were poised to form teams. Machholz acted quickly when he heard other coaches entertaining the idea.
"Instead of us being a program that had to add women's wrestling down the road, why don't we be one that is a trendsetter and forerunner and let everybody else try to catch up to us?" he thought.
The growth of collegiate women's wrestling has picked up since Valley and University of the Cumberlands (Ky.) started teams in 1999. Menlo College (Calif.), Pacific University (Ore.) and OCU formed squads. Stanford and Arizona State have female wrestlers on their men's teams. Three new teams will join competition in the fall, including two in Missouri (Lindenwood University and Missouri Baptist College). The newly formed Women's College Wrestling Association regulates and organizes collegiate competition.
• • •
Two weeks removed from her defeat in Iowa, Fee cannot stand still. The Missouri Valley College sophomore is as restless as a sugar-charged 4-year-old for the rematch against Oklahoma City University.
Valley is loose and vocal at home in Marshall. The team is ready to get off the bench and redeem itself on its creased purple mats.
Fee is on her feet, bouncing around like a boxer before her match. Her shoulder-length hair is pulled up tightly on her head, but her small ponytail flaps from side to side. Sweat soaks the gray New York Giants T-shirt she is wearing inside out over her blue singlet.
A match ends. Fee senses it's time. She yanks the T-shirt over her head and tosses it by the bench. Her eyes are focused on the mat.
"Fee, you're not up," her teammate Emily Rinehart says with a laugh.
"I thought I was up," Fee says, resuming her warm-ups. One more bout remains.
Fee has thrown herself into wrestling since she started in fourth grade. During practice, rapid, rhythmic thuds on the mat mark her intensity. Her teammates might stop to rest during drills. But Fee will slam her practice partner to the mat, bounce back up and take another shot.
"Life would be easy if I had a dozen of her," Murphree says.
Wrestling has formed Fee. The sport has not only forged her taut, 130-pound frame, but also her immeasurable resolve. When grief pummeled her, wrestling helped heal her. It was her refuge when her home became a haunted reminder of tragedy.