COLUMBIA — The air is thick at Hickman’s wrestling practice. It’s in a small area lined with mats lofted above the indoor swimming pool. Sweat, chlorine and grunts fill the room.
Practice is almost over when assistant coach Doug Gordon announces the final lesson of the day. How to perform the “Skull Crusher.”
But two of those skulls about to be crushed look different. Most are covered with short, dripping wet hair. The other two have dirty blond buns.
There are two girls this year on Hickman’s junior varsity squad, which started competing on Dec. 1. Never before has a female made it all the way through a season for the Kewpies.
“There’s a little bit of awkwardness,” Patrick Fleenor, a junior on the team, said. “I mean, there’s female parts and there’s man parts and all that stuff. It’s a little different, but you learn to work past it.”
Kathy Cruise joined the team during preseason workouts at the beginning of the school year, and Becca Schranck joined about a month ago.
“The season had already started, but I was looking to do a sport because I wanted to get more involved in high school rather than just bum my way through it,” Schranck said. “So I was like, I’ll see if I can join the wrestling team.”
When she heard the news, Cruise, who had gotten used to being the only girl on the team, couldn’t believe another one was joining.
“To be quite frank, I was like, ‘There’s another girl? Really? How’s this one going to turn out?’” she said.
The history of girls wrestling for Hickman is short and weak, so Cruise had no reason to think her new teammate would last. It was only a year ago when the first girl joined the Kewpies’ wrestling program, and she dropped out after a few weeks.
But Schranck, like Cruise, insisted she was different.
“I’m not really allowed to quit things, and it’s not part of who I am to quit things, and my mom is behind me saying, ‘Nope, you’re not quitting,’” Schranck said.
Nothing changed when Schranck joined the team. Both girls rotated through practice partners like everybody else instead of just sparring each other.
“The first time I was going to wrestle a girl I was a little bit scared and just kind of awkward,” Fleenor said. "I learned to work past it and go on with the flow. We don’t address it.”
Unlike Fleenor, Cruise can’t help but address the issue head on. She knows it’s funny, so why not laugh?
“I tend to laugh whenever I wrestle,” Cruise said. “Sometimes I’m just like, 'Oops! I’m sorry.’ There’s nothing really you can do. I’ve been told by some it’s a tad bit creepy, but that’s just how I am. I’ve always been like that. I just don’t stop smiling.”
Both Schranck and Cruise were accepted by their teammates. Yes, Fleenor said that he thought it was cool seeing girls compete on the same level with boys, but that didn’t make them true members of the team. It was how they were treated off the mat that made the girls feel like part of the team.
“At first I think they were definitely like ‘Why are you here?’” Schranck said. “After a while I’ve just become like another person on the team. They mess around with me, and coaches mess around. They give you nicknames and tease you just like you’re part of the team.”
In terms of wrestling, assistant coach Doug Gordon said there’s no difference in teaching the girls.
“We teach them the exact same moves,” Gordon said. “It’s up to them to find which ones work and don’t work. With their age and size, they kind of match up equally with the boys. There’s not a lot of upper body strength at that age, so they’re going to be competitive.”
The two competed against opponents from a different school for the first time Dec. 12 in a tournament at Helias High School. Schranck went 0-4, but Cruise, who has had more time to practice, went 2-2 including an overwhelming 12-4 decision in her third match. With the win, she became the first girl to win a match for Hickman.
“I was kind of like ‘I won, really?’” Cruise said. “I wasn’t really expecting to win all season just because it’s my first year and you’re probably not going to win. It was just like ‘wait, what?’”
The one thing both Cruise and Schranck do expect is to make it all the way through the season.
“I don’t think it’s only a goal, I just think it’s going to happen,” Schranck said. “We’re not going anywhere.”
And they know there will be plenty of uncomfortable moments along the way.
“A lot of people think girls can’t compete with guys, but I think we’re here to prove that wrong this year,” Schranck said. “We just got to get past those awkward moments. Laugh about them, but keep going.”