Author’s note: Ahead of this week’s 2021 U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials (full schedule here), On Her Turf examined the current offering of women’s wrestling weight classes. While wrestling weight classes are officially measured in kilograms, this story uses pounds when listing weight class cutoffs.
The 167-pound “heavyweight” champion of the world
U.S. wrestler Adeline Gray often jokes about being the “heavyweight champion of the world.”
To be clear: Gray is, technically, the heavyweight champion of the world. The 30-year-old has won five world titles – more than any other American wrestler (male or female) – all in the heaviest women’s weight class.
The reason it’s a joke is because the heaviest women’s weight class is 167 pounds (76 kilograms).
“I am not a super heavyweight,” Gray explained ahead of this week’s U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials in Fort Worth, Texas. “I’m the average woman in the United States and that means half the women in the United States can’t compete in the sport just because of the weight class restriction.”
So where are all of wrestling’s real heavyweights?
At the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, female wrestlers will compete in six weight classes, ranging from 110 pounds to 167 pounds.
According to the most recent CDC report of its kind, an American woman competing in wrestling’s largest weight class (167 pounds) would be close to the 55th percentile in terms of body weight (meaning 45% of American women weigh more).
In comparison, a man competing in wrestling’s largest men’s freestyle weight class (275 pounds) would fall between the 90th and 95th percentiles (meaning only 5-10% of American men weigh more).
A different issue exists on the opposite end of the scales.
According to the same CDC data, a woman who weighs 137 pounds would be in the 25th percentile of all American women. But she’d still be too big to compete in the four lightest women’s weight classes: 110 pounds, 116 pounds,125 pounds, and 136 pounds.
In other words: the majority of Olympic weight classes are open to just 25 percent of American women.
Of course, wrestling’s international federation – United World Wrestling – has to consider the world as a whole when determining weight classes, and it’s true that people in the United States, on average, weigh more than people in most other countries.
Still, that doesn’t explain the discrepancy between the largest men’s weight class and largest women’s weight class.
“We talk about how our sport is for everyone. And I would like to push for that to be true,” Gray explained. “There’s a lot of big women who shouldn’t have to lose 30 and 40 and 50 pounds just so they can do our sport.”
One of those women cutting weight just to compete is Sydnee Kimber.
Last month, Kimber won the 191-pound title at the National Collegiate Women’s Wrestling Championships (NCWWC). With the victory, Kimber – who attends McKendree University in Illinois- qualified for this week’s U.S. Olympic Trials.
But because there is no 191-pound – or even 180-pound – Olympic weight class, Kimber is currently in the process of cutting close to 20 pounds in order to compete for a spot at the Tokyo Games.
While Kimber says she is committed to cutting weight in a “safe and healthy way,” she also knows that there are inherent risks that come with the process.
“It’s hard putting your body through cutting 10, 15, 20 pounds,” she explained in a phone interview earlier this week. “It is kind of unfortunate that I have to put my body at risk to compete and [pursue] dreams like making Olympic teams or world teams.”
Wrestling’s push for gender equity
Wrestling was contested at the ancient Olympic Games, making it one of the world’s oldest competitive sports.
Despite its traditional roots, the sport has made some significant strides towards gender equity in recent years. Many of these changes can be traced back to February 2013, when wrestling was dropped from the list of core Olympic sports.
In retrospect, the removal was the wake-up call the sport needed.
Wrestling’s international federation quickly began to reform – and rebrand – itself. Within months, the newly instated president of the federation – Nenad Lalovic – said the sport would equalize the number of weight classes for men’s and women’s freestyle.
Ahead of the 2016 Rio Olympics, two women’s weight classes were added and one men’s freestyle weight class was dropped, so that both disciplines had six. (One of the seven Greco-Roman weight classes – a discipline contested only by men – was also dropped.)
Away from the scales, the sport has worked to elevate women in administrative, coaching, and officiating roles. And at this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, women’s wrestling will no longer be an “undercard” event. The final gold medal match of each day of competition will be a women’s match, a monumental shift.
But despite all of these changes, the wrestling room door is still closed to many women.
Breaking the link between ‘fitness’ and ‘thinness’
Society has created a strong association between ‘fitness’ and ‘thinness,’ especially when it comes to female athletes. In sports, men are often celebrated for bulking up, while women are told to slim down.
In 2019, U.S. runner Mary Cain helped continue a conversation about weight loss and body shaming when she opened up to the NYTimes about her experience at the Nike Oregon Project. In a video essay, Cain explained how her male coaches were convinced that, “In order to become faster, I had to become thinner, and thinner, and thinner.”
And while women in all sports may experience body shaming and pressure to slim down, sports that require “weigh ins” present a different type of issue: complete exclusion.
“There are girls that are just naturally heavier,” Kimber explained. “I’m never going to be a skinny little twig… When I’m in my 180-pound range, that’s when I feel healthiest and that’s when my body feels really good.”
Gray echoed this sentiment. “[It’s] kind of devastating for our sport because there are a lot of women that can compete at these higher weight classes, and I find it kind of chauvinist that we haven’t expanded the weight class yet,” she explained.
“Hopefully one day, we [will] have some true heavyweights. I would love to see some women who are bigger than me in the room.”
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