Where are the heavyweights? Wrestling weight classes exclude larger women

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Author’s note: At the Tokyo Olympics, Adeline Gray won a silver medal in the women’s 76kg weight class (the heaviest weight class in women’s wrestling). This story – which was originally published ahead of the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials – examines 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. 

Originally Published: April 1, 2021

Adeline Gray: 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.”

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”

2022 Ascendant LPGA: How to watch, who’s playing in Texas’s annual signature event

Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand hits her second shot on the 16th hole during the final round of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
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The LPGA make its annual stop in The Colony, Texas, this week for the 10th edition of the Ascendant LPGA benefiting Volunteers of America, where Thailand’s 19-year-old rookie Atthaya Thitikul comes in hot off her second career win and second playoff victory this season at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

Leading the 132-player field at Old American Golf Club, located at Golf Clubs at The Tribute, are Texas residents and past champions Cheyenne Knight and Angela Stanford. They’ll compete for the $1.7 million prize purse alongside major champions Nelly KordaLydia Ko and Brooke Henderson. Last year’s Ascendant LPGA champion, world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, will not be defending her title after announcing earlier this month she would be missing several weeks due to a nagging wrist injury.

This past weekend in Arkansas, Thitikul took the lead with a 10-under 61 in the second round and shot 68 in the final round to finish regulation tied with Danielle Kang at 17-under 196. Thitikul, who won the JTBC Classic in March in a two-hole playoff vs. Nanna Koerstz Madsen, drained an 8-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to secure the win over Kang.


How to watch the 2022 Ascendant LPGA 

Coverage of the 2022 Ascendant LPGA from Old American Golf Club in The Colony, Texas, can be found on Golf Channel, with streaming options available any time on any mobile device and online through NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

  • Thursday, Sept. 29: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, Sept. 30: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, Oct. 1: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, Oct. 2: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2022 Ascendant LPGA

Six of the top 10 players in the Rolex World Rankings are among the field in Texas, including:

  • No. 2 Nelly Korda
  • No. 4 Lydia Ko
  • No. 5 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 7 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka

A number of local Texans also are in the tournament, headlined by past champions, Angela Stanford (2020) and Cheyenne Knight (2019), and two junior champions of the Volunteers of America Classic Girls Championship, who are playing on a sponsor exemption: Yunxuan (Michelle) Zhang (2022), a freshman at SMU, and Avery Zweig (2021), a high school sophomore from McKinney, Texas.


Past five champions of The Ascendant LPGA

YEAR WINNER SCORE MARGIN RUNNERUP
2021 Jin Young Ko (South Korea) 16-under 268 1 stroke Matilda Castren
2020 Angela Stanford (USA) 7-under 277 2 strokes So Yeon Ryu, Inbee Park, Yealimi Noh
2019 Cheyenne Knight (USA) 18-under 266 2 strokes Brittany Altomare, Jaye Marie Green
2018 Sung Hyun Park (South Korea) 11-under 131 1 stroke Lindy Duncan
2017 Haru Nomura (Japan) 3-under 281 Playoff Christie Kerr

Last time at The Ascendant LPGA

South Korea’s Jin Young Ko carded a final-round 69 to maintain her 54-hole lead at Old American Golf Club and held on for a one stroke win at the 2021 Volunteers of America Classic, her eighth career LPGA tour title. Ko finished regulation at 16-under 268, edging Finland’s Matilda Castren by one stroke.

It kicked off a five-win season for Ko, who had just lost her No. 1 ranking to Nelly Korda the week prior after holding the top spot for 100 straight weeks. She regained the No. 1 ranking back in October 2021, after earning her fourth win in seven starts at the BMW Ladies Championship.


More about Old American Golf Club

Opened in 2010, the Old American Golf Club is one of two clubs at The Tribute, a lakefront resort community on Lewisville Lake in The Colony, Texas. Designed by Tripp Davis and 12-time PGA Tour winner Justin Leonard, Old American plays as a Par 71 and stretches to 6,475 yards on the tournament scorecard.