“It was not very easy to join the team, but I’m glad I’m on it,” Jhanae Ottey (11) said. Ottey is currently the only girl on the wrestling team, and joined when she was ninth grade in an effort to try something new, she said.
“I didn’t necessarily like the other sports that were offered,” Ottey said. “I was like, ‘Okay, I might as well do wrestling, if I’m going to go all out.’”
Coach Gregg Quilty was surprised when Ottey joined the team. “[It] was very brave of her,” he said. “Normally, girls won’t join unless there are other girls on the team.”
Ottey isn’t the first girl Quilty has coached on the school’s wrestling team. Female wrestlers Eleanor Lewis and Akeyla Todd have both had successful careers in the sport, though they only wrestled boys, he said.
In order to join the team, Ottey needed to obtain permission from the school and complete a two-week long process to prove she met the physical standards to be on a boys’ team — a process similar to that a student in the middle school would have to go through in order to join a high school team, Ottey said. Ottey endured multiple physical tests, such as running a mile and doing push-ups, and consulted her doctor to receive forms ensuring her physical capability, she said.
“It was definitely kind of stressful, but I know it was a means of testing myself to see if I was really up to being on the team,” Ottey said. The process is part of a physical fitness exam required by New York State in order for a girl to compete in a boys’ sport — which wrestling is technically classified as, Quilty said.
“For example, if there was a girls’ team and a boys’ team — like there’s girls’ basketball and boys’ basketball — and a girl wants to join the boys’ basketball team, they’d have to prove that they’re up to the standard of boys physically,” Ottey said.
Because boys on the team might not be able to pass the physical tests themselves, Ottey said there is a double standard for girls who want to join the team. Since the school’s wrestling team is co-ed, Ottey also thinks that the process is not necessary and should be removed, she said.
Ross Petras (10) said he did not know about the process Ottey had to go through in order to join the team and that it was unfair that Ottey had to prove she was capable of being on the team.
The process serves as a deterrent for girls to join the team, Ottey said. According to Ottey, another girl had signed up for the wrestling team the same year she joined but didn’t end up committing to the team. “She said that she was too busy to be on the team,” Ottey said. “But I have a sneaking suspicion that it was just because she didn’t want to do the process.”
Ottey will go through the same process again this year, even though this is her third year on the team. “They’re trying to see if I’m still up to the standard,” she said. “I really don’t like it. It isn’t necessary.”
When she first joined the team, Ottey was open-minded but didn’t feel very comfortable, she said. “I didn’t know that many people on the team and I was just learning the sport,” she said. The process of physical testing prevented her from wrestling directly after joining and set her two weeks behind.
Ottey originally believed she would be excluded because of her gender. “I felt a lot more excluded than I was actually being excluded,” she said. “But soon I got into the mindset that this team was really close, and I was a part of it, and that was that.”
Ottey has since grown more comfortable with her teammates and the sport of wrestling itself. “I sincerely love the friendship that we’ve created between all the wrestlers.”
While Ottey’s favorite part about the team is seeing the competitive side to many of her classmates, she particularly enjoys its close and supportive nature. “Last year, we had a day where we all wore suits and ties [for team spirit], and every single person on the team did it,” Ottey said. “And that’s just great for us, and seeing us win matches and tournaments and just putting our all into this sport is just really inspiring to me.”
Even if more girls joined the team, Ottey doesn’t think the dynamic would change. “But I do think that without the [process], it would be a lot easier, at least mentally, for girls to join,” she said. When it comes to competitions, Ottey’s opponents have mostly been unfazed by the fact that she was a girl, since other schools’ teams have girls on them as well. However, Ottey sometimes felt as though she was at a disadvantage, she said.
“Last year, I had a lot of matches where I mentally [thought that] I just can’t be wrestling these guys,” she said. “We’re in the same weight class, but they’re just stronger, period. There’s not much I could do about that.”
Ottey’s perspective on her own capability as a wrestler and wrestling as a sport changed when she entered in a women’s tournament through the school because she no longer felt as though she was at a disadvantage. Ottey’s shift in mindset helped her win matches against wrestlers who weren’t girls as well, she said.
Winning matches against boys helped boost her confidence, Ottey said. She remembers a match she won against a boy last year that she was particularly happy about winning. “That was the first time I really proved to myself that I can be successful in this sport, in the same weight class as the guys.”
Since then, Ottey has had a successful wrestling career. Last year, she placed third in the Edgemont Tournament Girls Division and won one of her bouts in the NY State Girls’ Championships, Quilty said.
Petras has never wrestled Ottey, but he does think that she is a great teammate and wrestler. “It’s always great to be with her during tournaments and dual meets and to be on the side with the rest of the team while she wrestled,” he said.
While Ottey was able to join the wrestling team, there aren’t many girls in the sport in general, Ottey said. Even on the co-ed teams she has competed against, there were usually only a few girls, but it did make a difference when there were girls on a team, Ottey said.
“They’re distinctly different in my eyes, because it shows like, ‘oh, that school is more progressive, that’s cool,’” Ottey said. “It’s just the image you portray at matches.” Ottey feels as though her presence on the wrestling team is pushing the team towards a more co-ed direction, she said.
Girls’ wrestling is now the fastest growing sport in the country, and many colleges have also added it as a sport recently, Quilty said.
According to a survey conducted in 2019 by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), only 2,890 schools in the country had girls’ wrestling teams, while there were 10,843 boys’ wrestling teams. In addition, only 21,124 girls were on high school wrestling teams from 2018-2019, in comparison to the 247,441 boys on high school wrestling teams. However, the reported number of girls on wrestling teams was a 27.5% increase from the previous year, and the reported number of schools with girls’ wrestling teams increased by 22.9%.
Quilty encourages more girls to join the wrestling team, so that the school can eventually have a full girls’ wrestling team in the future, he said.
“I hope that me being on a team can be an open invitation for girls to try new things who aren’t in a sport for the winter,” Ottey said. “Join wrestling, and join the family, because we’re here with open arms.”