Chadron State Sees Women's Wrestling as the Next Big Sport
By Bill Kelly , Senior Producer/Reporter Nebraska Public Media
Nov. 18, 2021, 6 a.m. ·
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Any time a school adds an athletic program, there can be some risk. Will there be enough good players? Were the budget projections accurate? What if the fans don't show up?
Yet Joel Smith, the athletic director at Chadron State College, won't second guess his push to add women's wrestling to the school's roster of eight sports.
"To me, it looked very good to be out on the front edge of a growth sport," Smith told Nebraska Public Media News. "I don't think it's gonna die."
This month Chadron State became the 109th college in the United States to add women's wrestling. It is the first NCAA-sanctioned program in Nebraska. (Women already wrestle with other conferences at Hastings College, York College, Doane University, and Midland University.)
The new team arrives at a time of phenomenal growth in girls' wrestling in Nebraska's high schools. This spring, the Nebraska State Activities Association joined 32 other states in sanctioning high school girls' wrestling. The number of NSAA schools offering the sport doubled in a single year to 111.
Smith says, "the interest level is so high that it will come right up there with men's wrestling very quickly, and that's what we were excited about."
That's no small prediction from a school with a historically strong men's program of 33 athletes. Smith hopes to match that number of women within five years.
For the six women competing on the inaugural team, "it's kind of a big deal," according to Kinsey Smith. She understands this first team is attracting attention on campus and across the region.
"I have a lot of eyes on me. We all do," she said. "People want to watch us, so there's a little bit of pressure there."
Smith, a junior from Windsor, Colorado majoring in Business Administration, arrived in Chadron as a golfer. She wanted to wrestle in high school but was not allowed. Now, at 4" 11' with bruises on her calves she shows off with pride, Smith hopes to master a new sport while competing in the 101 lbs. weight class.
Her weight class partner, freshman Taylor Lindstrom, told a visitor, "We're really setting the tone for what Chadron State's women's wrestling is going to be."
Lindstrom competed as the only girl on her high school team in Rhapsody, South Dakota. At five feet and hovering around 100 lbs., she's a distinctive presence in a photo surrounded by larger boys on her high school team. In competition, Lindstrom made her mark after wrestling only one season, advancing to become one of the first girls in South Dakota's high school championship.
"When you look at it, we are literally at the start of the program," Lindstrom said. "We are the very first people to be wrestling for Chadron State Women's Wrestling, so it's really cool."
In practice, the teammates in the same weight class quickly became well-matched grappling partners during drills.
The banter between them combines a little trash talk with encouragement as they switch out practicing defense and attacks.
Sweat-soaked, panting and grinning, they finish the drills.
Lindstrom declares it a "good practice. I feel like we got a lot done." Smith smiles and says, "I love feeling this sweaty, honestly. It feels like I accomplished something!"
The four other team members from Nebraska, Arizona, Nevada, and South Dakota, were recruited on short notice over the summer. Coach Alijah Jeffery found their skill level and attitude good additions to a start-up program.
"Give it a year or two, and I think Chadron State will really be known for women's wrestling," Jeffery said.
He caught the attention of Chadron State after he helped lead Indian Hills Community College in Iowa to a national championship the same year the school introduced its women's wrestling program.
Passionate about the sport, Jeffery said, "I love women's wrestling. I love seeing the growth and women's wrestling, and I think that passion is going to help this program succeed."
The athletic department liked having a coach who could build a program from scratch, and Jeffery liked the prospect of creating another winning program. He knows it's a challenge.
"We don't have a foundation of women that have already been to school here and been (in) the program a year or two," he said. "So, everyone is learning, and we're doing the best that we can."
Chadron State considered options other than wrestling to add to its women's sports line-up. (The college also features women's basketball, volleyball, softball, golf, cross-country, track and field, and rodeo.)
Options considered by the school as new additions included swimming, lacrosse, triathlon, and soccer.
While a popular and potentially crowd-pleasing team sport, soccer would require substantial investments in a soccer field and facilities. The others had their pros and cons.
Athletic director Smith kept returning to the hard data showing an unmistakable surge in women wanting to wrestle at the prep and collegiate levels.
It helped wrestling has deep roots at Chadron State, going back 50 years.
Smith said, "it started to make some sense that maybe that was a really easy thing to do since we already have men's wrestling." It would not be a hard sell for the school's leadership since "we had the infrastructure for it, all locker room spaces, places for them to work out that kind of thing.
Adding a sister program, he believed, would be "a pretty easy transition."
Nor were there objections from the men's program, which according to Smith, saw the profile and publicity of adding women wrestlers would only solidify the college's reputation as a wrestling heavyweight in the region.
Chadron State College competes in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. Colorado Mesa boasted the first women's team in the group.
There are times when schools use the lack of competition as an excuse not to provide additional athletic opportunities for women. Chadron State turned that argument on its head.
"I like being in that position where we're something new and unique," Smith said. "But believe me, we had long conversations with a lot of our conference schools, which I think eventually will add it, and I think it'll eventually be a conference sport."
The college sees being an early adopter of a new sport as having the advantage of being a good business decision. It will potentially lure a few dozen new students to a school they might not have otherwise had on their radar.
"This sport gave us the greatest opportunity to have the largest amount of kids for the resources that we had available," Smith said.
For an up-to-date map of women's wrestling programs, CLICK HERE.
Before deciding to add the women's program, Smith said there were "numbers and indicators and analysis" they reviewed and asked, "How many kids can we get to come to school? That's our biggest thing."
He says it goes beyond the 30 women they hope to attract within five years, but he says there's the assumption that "when athletes come to an institution, they bring along a couple of kids with them so that we can see the growth from that standpoint."
Smith believes the fast growth of girls' wrestling in Nebraska high schools means "we don't have to go very far to recruit kids."
There are individual goals, team goals, and the goals set by college administrators, but for the coach and his wrestlers, there's a sense that for this sport, at this time, more than trophies could be at stake.
Jeffery says that "from the very first team meeting, I let them know that this is more than just going out for a college athletics program."
"This is about setting the foundation," he said. "There's going to be a lot of little girls, elementary through high school, that are looking up to them and seeing this is a reality now."
Kinsey Smith agrees the team has something larger to accomplish.
"I think it's exciting," she said, adding that by being a first NCAA team in Nebraska, "that's already inspiring other schools in Nebraska to start women's wrestling programs."
The reality looked pretty good for the Chadron State Eagle's inaugural flight.
At the very first competition at Colorado Mesa, Chadron State had some modest success. One wrestler, Kamila Montenegro, wrestling at 170 pounds, led the team with a third-place finish. The athletic department named her the athlete of the week.
The summary from the athletic department noted Taylor Lindstrom and Karsten Hollen made it to the third round of consolations and were one match from placing at the tournament.
As Lindstrom put it, "we get after it."
"We put a lot of effort into our sport, we all are here to compete and have a good season, so I think it's going to go very well for us."
Nebraska Public Media is reflecting on the 50th anniversary of Title IX through our series: "Title IX: More than a Game." Read more about the landmark equity law here:
- 'We Just Wanted to Play': How Title IX Helped Nebraska Volleyball Thrive
- How a Minden Lawsuit Redefined Title IX for Public Schools
- Title IX Lawsuits Allege UNL Mishandled Sexual Assault Reports
- Work is Changing, But Pay Gap Between Men and Women Remains Hard to Narrow in Nebraska, Nationwide
- Female Enrollment Up in Colleges, but Faculty Pay Gap Remains
- Outside the binary: How Title IX protections affect transgender Nebraskans
- Before Title IX, Women's Sports Pioneer Claussen Found a Path
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