Navarrete is one of many young women who have found purpose and direction in high school wrestling. While extracurricular activities aimed toward female students in school still include dance or cheer or volleyball, a growing number of girls are opting for bumps and bruises in wrestling.
“When I first started wrestling as a child, I would be paired up with the boys because there weren’t hardly any girls wrestling,” Navarrete recalls. “When I started in high school, there were more [but] still not that many. But nowadays when I go watch a high school wrestling tournament, my mind is blown by how many girls are wrestling.”
The rise of female high school wrestling is undeniable. In 1999, Texas became one of the first states in the country to sanction high school wrestling for women, but thanks to big-name MMA fighters like Ronda Rousey and growth at the summer Olympics during the late 2000s, the number of girls competing in high school wrestling has never been higher.
Navarrete attributes the growth both to popular MMA fighters and the female wrestlers who came before her.
“The pioneers of women wrestling have become coaches and trainers and have given back a lot to the wrestling community,” Navarrete says. “They created a safe place for girls to train and improve and receive encouragement. And with more girls getting involved in wrestling, it creates a domino effect.”
One of those pioneers is Monica Allen, who wrestled in high school in Amarillo in the early 2000s shortly after Texas sanctioned women’s wrestling.
“When I competed in my first tournament, the brackets for the girl’s side wasn’t even full of competitors because there were so few girls,” Allen says. In the last state wrestling tournament Allen attended, she estimates around 5,000 girl wrestlers participated, a huge increase from when she wrestled in high school nearly 20 years ago.
Allen remembers being paired with boys who were in a similar weight range when she first started. The girls wrestling back then were not very coordinated or skilled, she says.
“Lots and lots of falling to the ground,” Allen recalls, laughing. “Everyone was a beginner back then and needed training. You didn’t have girls that had been wrestling for years and years. The girls today have been wrestling for years before they even get to high school. They are a lot stronger, faster and have better technique than we did back then.”
Allen continued wrestling in college at Missouri Valley and then became a head wrestling coach at Azle High School, where the school won a wrestling state title. She now leads a nonprofit called Sisters on the Mat, a self-described “little sis-big sis” wrestling program based in Azle. Nonprofits such as Sisters on the Mat and Wrestle Like A Girl have helped fuel the sport's as more Division 1 colleges launch programs and offer scholarships to young women.
“Giving girls opportunities to wrestle other girls is the reason why the sport is growing,” Allen says. “It is important for those that wrestled before to give back and coach clubs and teams for the girls.”
With the popularity of female high school wrestling on the upswing, coaches accustomed to coaching boys now also coach girls.
Clay Goodloe has been a wrestling coach for 10 years, and he coaches the Wolves at Plano West High School. He never had a female student until halfway through his coaching career.
Goodloe coaches both the men’s and women’s wrestling teams at Plano West, and he coaches each the same. Despite soreness and occasional black eyes, the girls love to compete in practice, sometimes against the boys.
“Girls are very coachable, and when they fall in love with the sport, they improve rapidly,” Goodloe says. “Boys learn the hard way while girls are more apt to listen to the coach’s advice.”
One of the girls Goodloe coached was Ashley Lekas, who won a state championship for Plano West in 2019 and is still deciding where she wants to wrestle in college. She remembers when Goodloe first recruited her.
“I was a dancer all my life, and then Coach Goodloe asked me when I was a freshman and sophomore, and then in my junior year he asked again if I would give wrestling a go," Lekas says. "My dance studio folded, so I decided to try.”
Despite having athletic training from dancing, Lekas quickly realized high school wrestling was a new challenge and demanded more than she anticipated.
"Yeah, the boys would fold me in half, and that would leave me really discouraged. But I kept telling myself to keep working hard and eventually I’d be able to keep up with the boys.” – wrestler Ashley Lekas
“My first practice, I couldn’t even run for five minutes and that was the warm-up,” she says. “I started at the very bottom. But when I first got on the mat, the fire inside me started to grow.”
The difficulty of learning a new sport is actually what motivated Lekas to work harder. In her first few weeks at practice, she was also paired up with the boys because there weren’t enough girls to wrestle against.
“Yeah, the boys would fold me in half, and that would leave me really discouraged,” she says. “But I kept telling myself to keep working hard and eventually I’d be able to keep up with the boys.”
Two months after she started training with Goodloe, Lekas was set to compete in her first high school tournament. Those unfamiliar with high schooling should understand this is not the WWE (you will never see Lekas put somebody through the announcer’s table) nor is it UFC (no punching or kicking).
In high school wrestling, victory comes either by points or by pinfall. Points for individual matches are given for taking a standing opponent down to the mat. Escapes, reversals and near falls also receive points, too, but the most impressive way of winning a match is by pinning your opponent’s back and both shoulders flat on the mat for two seconds, which is known as a pinfall victory.
When Lekas was set to wrestle her first match, she was so new to the sport that she didn’t even realize when she won, which she did via pinfall after just 20 seconds. Lekas won her state championship later that season.
A spotlight was placed on high school wrestling during the most recent Texas legislative session with the debate over Senate Bill 29. This bill would have limited which school sports programs transgender kids could join. Its proponents argued that biologically male students who transitioned to females would have an unfair advantage over girls. The bill didn’t reach the floor for a vote but did create a firestorm from activists, students and parents.
In 2018, transgender wrestler Mack Beggs made national headlines when he went undefeated and won the girls' state championship. Over the previous years, Beggs, who was born female, had undergone hormone therapy as part of his gender transition. (Supporters of SB 29 argue male hormones and their effects on size and muscle mass give unfair advantages to trans athletes. In Texas, University Interscholastic League rules require student-athletes to compete according to whichever gender is listed on their birth certificate.) Despite Beggs’ desire to wrestle against the boys, he was obliged to wrestle in the girls’ tournament.
Monica Allen was Beggs’ coach and began coaching him when he first began his transition during his sophomore year.
“I watched Mack progress just like any other hardworking athlete would," Allen says. "I saw Mack get to where he was through hard work and dedication. His progression through wrestling was just like any other wrestling. I’m not sure if he had an advantage or not.”
“Every person should be respected and have the right to compete,” says state champion Ashley Lekas. “But I see issues with male-born athletes wanting to wrestle against girls. They have physical advantages such as bone density, muscle fibers, testosterone; there’s a huge difference, and it’s not fair.”
LGBTQ advocates argue that the bill is discriminatory and harmful to the transgender community in Texas.
Bobbi Navarrete has been wrestling since she was in elementary school, but she never competed against a transgender wrestler.
While Beggs’ winning the state championship got the country talking about transgender athletes in wrestling, Allen says that it isn’t the first time a transgender wrestler has competed.
“When I first started coaching, I took the girls to a tournament and there was a transgender wrestler, but that wrestler didn’t do well in the tournament, so it wasn’t as big a story,” Allen says.
One reason wrestling appeals to so many is that it is truly a one-on-one sport. Teams score points and compete against one another, but wins, losses and points all fall on the individual wrestler’s shoulders.
“I get to fight and be praised,” Lekas says. “The training is so difficult that when you win, it feels incredibly rewarding.”
Former state champion Navarrete has felt the same thrill of victory, but for her, it is more about the journey.
“I love the grind,” she says. “I love the burn. If I want to get in shape, I’d go to a mat-room and wrestle. Wrestling has provided me so many opportunities and friendships.”
Navarette is planning to become a volunteer wrestling coach while she finishes college and then become a full-time certified teacher and coach. She’s excited to get back in the gym, where she has spent so much of her life. Would she be able to keep up with the boy wrestlers this time when she returns as a teacher?
“Oh absolutely, Navarette says. “I could definitely take them on. It’s not all about strength. If you can perfect your technique, you will be successful.”