A group of high school wrestlers with gym bags waits for the elevator in the fourth-floor lobby of MU’s Lathrop Hall.
As the doors open, “GIIRRLL!!” is all they can say when they see Erica Poe standing in the already crowded car. The doors close again before any more boys can squeeze in.
Poe, 17, has been wrestling for four years, and this is her second year attending the “Tiger Style” Wrestling Camp, which attracted more than 700 junior high and high school wrestlers from around the country. As the only female wrestler on her high school team, she’s had experience handling herself in these situations.
“Yeah, I deal with things like that a lot, but most of the time they are all pretty respectful,” Poe said. “Sometimes they follow me around and stare or just act normal.”
Since the introduction of Title IX, part of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, which was established to provide equal opportunities to men and women in sports, girls participating in predominantly male sports such as Poe are becoming more common.
Camp director and MU wrestling coach Brian Smith has seen a small but steady increase in the number of girls in his camps.
“Athletes get used to it. It’s part of the sport now,” he said. “Some of the girls are really good.”
As more girls join the sport, high schools in several states are working toward establishing separate teams. But it is a slow process.
The first time Poe tried wrestling was at Warsaw High School with the boys team. She recalls it being very different and confusing, but has grown to appreciate and enjoy its benefits.
“I like how it lets me get my anger out,” she said. “I always feel good after I wrestle and I always learn something new.”
Since she was 3, Poe has lived in Warsaw, Mo., with her grandmother, Ruth Kauffman.
“It bothered me a little when she told me she wanted to wrestle,” Kauffman said. “I said to her, ‘Why would someone as pretty as you want to wrestle boys?’”
Since seeing her granddaughter’s matches, Kauffman has become more comfortable with Poe wrestling. She feels it has given Poe a sense of discipline and is a constructive force in her life.
As a break from wrestling, Poe recently entered the Warsaw Jubilee Days beauty pageant. She got to showcase her sign-language talent and finished as second runner-up. She also participates in other sports and school activities, such as softball and the English Club.
Aside from her ponytail, eye shadow and bright shoes, Poe gets lost in the crowd on the wrestling mats.
“I like the reactions I get sometimes because I am girlie and people don’t expect me to be good,” Poe said. “But I also don’t like that — just because I am a girl, it does not mean I don’t like wrestling.”
Fifteen-year-old Jake Malcom, who attends East Side High School, has wrestled girls in competition.
“The way I see it, when they step on the mat, it’s just a wrestler and they want to beat you. … They didn’t step on the mat to have you go easy on them. They want to wrestle.”
The camp is divided into two one-week sessions, during which wrestlers learn and practice techniques for seven hours a day. For the first session of the camp, Erica Poe was the only female. She was joined by one other girl during the second week.
Smith and other members of the MU wrestling team and staff run the camp, including two-time NCAA national champion Ben Askren.
Poe has been a longtime fan of Askren, whom she got to sign her green-and-pink shoes.
“At school everyone knows I love him,” she said. “When I was nominated princess, we were asked who we would want to marry and I said him.”
At the wrestling camp, Poe intently watches the coaches’ demonstrations and practices new moves with fellow campers. After practice, Poe texts her friends on her pink Razr phone and hangs out with the boys in the residence hall.
“Camp has been really fun,” she said. “I have learned a lot of new stuff and met lots of people.”
Poe hopes to continue wrestling in college and is considering Missouri Valley College, one of five colleges in the country that has a women’s wrestling team.
The coach of that team, Carl Murphree, has noticed the lack of outlets for females entering the sport.
“I don’t see whole lot of support in the grassroots level,” he said. “The coach at Warsaw is very supportive, but girls elsewhere are getting buried and frustrated.”
Poe embraces the challenge and uses the opposition she encounters to fuel her.
“When people doubt me, I like to prove them wrong,” she said. “I take it out in my wrestling and they get it.”