Will NCAA Championship For Women’s Wrestling Be A Boon For Future Olympic Games?

by Peggy Shinn

Helen Maroulis poses with her medal during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 05, 2021 in Chiba, Japan. (Photo by Getty Images)
Look at the landscape of women’s wresting in the United States over the last eight years. In 2016, we had six states that were sanctioned in the sport of girls high school wrestling, and today we're at about 45. In 2016 we had about 40 collegiate wrestling programs for women. Today we're at over 150. The growth has been unprecedented.
Sarah Hildebrandt
Sarah Hildebrandt

Mallory Velte is a two-time senior world championship medalist in women’s freestyle wrestling. The 28-year-old is also a three-time Women’s Collegiate Wrestling Association (WCWA) champion for Simon Fraser University. A 2024 Olympic hopeful, she hopes to add an Olympic medal to her trophy collection this summer.

Missing from her resume is an NCAA title. Although women’s wrestling has been an Olympic sport since 2004, the sport has not had NCAA championship status. Until, hopefully, 2026.

The NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics recently voted to recommend adding a national collegiate women’s wrestling championship to its list of 12 other sports in which women can compete in NCAA national championships. If approved, the first NCAA women’s wrestling championship is slated for 2026.

“One million percent I wish [women’s wrestling] had been [an NCAA sport when I was in college],” said Velte, who graduated from Simon Fraser in 2018. “What I had was good for the time, but what the women will have in the future is even better. They will be getting great coaching support with access to strength and conditioning and other services, which were not available to us.”

Great coaching and training opportunities are just two of the opportunities afforded athletes in sports that have NCAA championship status. As Wrestle Like A Girl CEO Sally Roberts points out, “The benefits are multifaceted.” (Wrestle Like a Girl submitted the proposal to the NCAA.)

“From a student-athlete’s perspective, it gives them a sense of legitimacy and amplifies the sport,” added Roberts, a two-time world championship bronze medalist who also wrestled in college. “They’ll be competing for an NCAA title, just like their male counterparts and women in other sports, and there’s an element of pride in that.”

It is tempting to look at men’s wrestling for a glimpse at the future; men’s wrestling has been an Olympic sport since the debut of the modern Games in 1896 and had an NCAA championship since 1928. USA Wrestling has one of the strongest teams in the world.

But it is more enlightening to look at other women’s sports that have gained NCAA championship status through the NCAA’s Emerging Sports for Women program: women’s rowing (1996), ice hockey (2000), water polo (2000), bowling (2003), and beach volleyball (2015).

If women’s wrestling is like these other Olympic sports, this proposal bodes well for the future of U.S. women’s freestyle wrestling on an Olympic level.

Tamyra Mensah-Stock competes in the women's freestyle 68 kg. gold medal match during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 03, 2021 in Chiba, Japan. (Photo by Getty Images)

Women’s rowing debuted at the Olympic Games in 1976. While most of the American women competing at those Games rowed in college, they did not have a collegiate championship, nor were women wholeheartedly welcomed in the boathouse.

It would be another four years before the National Women’s Rowing Association hosted a national collegiate championship in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Held in the summer, long after the regular collegiate season, these championships were often not on many athletic departments’ radar; most athletes had to pay their own way.

[Interestingly, rowing is the oldest intercollegiate sport in the U.S. The first collegiate championship was held in 1871, with the Intercollegiate Rowing Association established in 1895. Men’s collegiate rowing is still governed by the IRA and is not an NCAA sport.]

In 1994, the NCAA formed the Emerging Sports for Women program—based on a recommendation from the NCAA Gender Equality Task Force—and rowing became the first “emerging women’s sport” to earn NCAA championship status. Since 1997, the NCAA has hosted a Division 1 championship for women’s rowing, with two boat classes for eights and one for fours.

“What this has done is increase the talent pool for the sport in really profound and varied ways,” pointed out Mary Mazzio, a 1992 Olympian who rowed at Mt Holyoke College in the 1980s. Mazzio produced the film A Hero for Daisy, which chronicles two-time Olympian Chris Ernst who, in 1976, galvanized the Yale women’s rowing team to storm the athletic director’s office to protest the lack of locker room facilities for the women.

For many colleges and universities, women’s rowing was a sport that helped them comply with Title IX, the 1972 legislation that prohibits gender discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding. Many of the large state universities created women’s rowing programs and offered scholarships.

Mazzio called it “a gamechanger in terms of making the sport more accessible to those who normally would [not know about the sport]. It was a sudden increase in the talent pool.”

By 2004, the U.S. women’s eight had become a dominant force in international rowing. From 2006 to 2018, the U.S. women’s eight was undefeated in Olympic and world championship competition.

“The talent pool is exceptional now, look at the speeds of these boats,” said Mazzio, whose daughter Daisy Mazzio-Manson rowed for Yale, then won the 2021 NCAA title with the University of Texas, where she was a graduate student.

Mazzio-Manson helped the U.S. women’s eight win a silver medal at 2023 world championships and is now an Olympic hopeful for Paris.

“The women’s eight has been so dominant, and it’s because of those big [NCAA] programs where you have scholarships for students who otherwise could not access the sport. It’s been a huge boon to the talent pool.”

Kayla Miracle competes in the women's freestyle 62 kg. 1/8 final during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 03, 2021 in Chiba, Japan. (Photo by Getty Images)

Looking at women’s wrestling, NCAA demographic research shows that 43 percent of student-athletes on women’s wrestling rosters are minorities, tied for the fourth-highest percentage among NCAA women’s sports. As more Division 1 schools add women’s wrestling, these intercollegiate programs will “unlock the doors of opportunity for scholarships,” said Roberts.

In 2000, water polo became the next summer sport to earn NCAA Championship status from the Emerging Sports for Women program. It was also the same year that women’s water polo made its Olympic debut.

From 2001-2010, UCLA won seven NCAA titles with Adam Kirkorian at the helm before he became the women’s national team coach in 2009. Kirkorian played water polo for UCLA, leading the Bruins to the NCAA title in 1995.

While U.S. women’s water polo has won a medal in every Olympic tournament since 2000, the program became dominant in 2012. Team USA has won three consecutive Olympic gold medals in women’s water polo (2012, 2016, 2020) and five (of seven) world championship titles since 2015.

“Water polo being named an NCAA championship sport has been a huge reason for not only our success over the past 20-plus years but also just the amount of opportunities that we’ve been given,” commented Maggie Steffens, right before she helped Team USA win another world title in mid-February 2024.

Steffens competed for Stanford University from 2013-2017, helping the Cardinal win three NCAA Championships and taking MVP of the NCAA women’s tournament in 2015 and 2017. She has also been a stalwart on the U.S. women’s water polo team since 2010.

Stanford and Southern California have won all the NCAA titles in the past 14 years. And every woman on the current national team played in college.

“The NCAA giving women’s water polo that chance was a really big step in the right direction,” continued Steffens. “It’s definitely what helped snowball women’s water polo and what we’ve been able to do in the last 24 years.”

Looking at women’s wrestling, the University of Iowa added women’s wrestling in 2021—the first NCAA Division 1 Power Five conference school to offer the sport—and hired Olympic bronze medalist Clarissa Chun as head coach. On her roster: national team member and 2021 junior world champion (76 kg) Kylie Welker.

(right) Helen Maroulis competes in the women’s freestyle 57 kg. semifinal during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 04, 2021 in Chiba, Japan. (Photo by Getty Images)

Women’s beach volleyball is the most recent sport to be elevated to NCAA championship status (2015). Like rowing, it was an Olympic sport for two decades before gaining NCAA championship status, with men’s and women’s beach volleyball making the Olympic program in 1996.

American women soon became dominant. From 2004-2012, Kerri Walsh-Jennings and Misty May-Treanor won three consecutive Olympic gold medals. Walsh-Jennings also won an Olympic bronze medal with April Ross at the 2016 Games. At the 2020 Tokyo Games, Ross and Alix Klineman put Team USA back at the top of the Olympic podium.

All four of these women played NCAA indoor volleyball in college. May-Treanor led Long Beach State to the NCAA title in 1998; Walsh Jennings was on Stanford’s 2001 NCAA winning team. Ross won back-to-back NCAA indoor volleyball titles at the University of Southern California, Klineman played for Stanford.

Now the top-ranked Americans play collegiate beach volleyball. In fact, 2020 Olympian Kelly Cheng (née Claes) graduated from high school a semester early so she could join the University of Southern California’s beach volleyball team.

In 2016, Cheng and partner Sara Hughes won the inaugural NCAA Beach Volleyball Championship, then successfully defended the title the following year. Cheng qualified for the 2020 Olympic Games (with Sarah Sponcil). Then in 2023, paired again with Hughes, they won the 2023 FIVB World Championship gold medal.

Currently ranked third in the world, Cheng and Hughes are hoping to continue the U.S.’s medal dominance at 2024 Paris Olympic Games.

“I don’t think there would be the depth or dominance coming out of the U.S. without the NCAA,” said Cheng. “It’s such an incredible advantage for the U.S. Now young female athletes have the opportunity to train with incredible coaches for four years and start competing at a high level right out of college.”

Women’s NCAA Division 1 wrestling would likely serve as a similar pipeline to the national team. In the U.S., 46 states currently recognize girls’ high school wrestling as an official sport. The top high school wrestlers can continue developing in top NCAA Division 1 programs.

“To see [women’s wrestling] go to an official NAIA championships and now an official NCAA championships soon, the talent in both divisions is getting deeper,” said Velte. “This depth will continue to grow, and the legitimacy of women’s wrestling will grow.

"It will mimic the men’s program, where we have become the best nation in the world. This is very cool, and I am excited.”