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  • Sigrid Drefke

Going to the Mat for Women’s Wrestling

Photo Credits: @cornellwomenswrestling on Instagram

Two people, one mat: all you have is yourself and your own strength. The whistle blows, and the cue for the match starts.

Some wrestlers started the sport as an outlet for their aggression or energy; others were flagged down in a high school hallway by coaches looking to grow their teams. No matter how they started, Cornell wrestlers have explained how the sport grabbed them and did not let them go. However, not all wrestlers are able to jointly pursue academic and athletic careers.

As of today, there are only four Division I women’s wrestling programs in the nation. Without programs for women’s wrestling, many women are forced to choose between the sport they love and their academic goals. Two Cornell students, Destiny Garcia ’25 and Kate Zavuholnik ’26, decided to prioritize their academics and leave their wrestling careers behind them.

However, They were not able to retire from wrestling for long “I couldn’t let it go,” said Zavuholnik. “I couldn’t live with the fact that I couldn’t wrestle anymore. There’s just something so contagious about it, and I missed it so much.” Likewise, Garcia had previously decommitted from a D1 college she was recruited to for wrestling in favor of pursuing her academics, but despite this, her passion for the sport still prevailed: “I always love it at the end of the day. I think I’ll always come back to it no matter what.”

The longing to wrestle was the catalyst for Destiny and Kate to get together and found the women’s club wrestling team at Cornell. In doing so, they wanted to expand the opportunities for women like themselves to have the opportunity to pursue both academic and athletic interests.

Over the past year, Destiny and Kate have pushed to grow the club team, but that is not where their ambitions end: they hope to add Cornell to the growing list of Division I women’s wrestling teams.

Photo Credits: Kate Zavuholnik

Although women’s wrestling is one of the fastest-growing sports in the country according to the National Wrestling Coaches Association, colleges have not been as quick to catch up. Cornell women’s club wrestling has flourished in its first year, and women’s wrestling is beginning to have a bigger presence on campus.

Garcia said, “It’s growing more and more every day.” The women’s club had 25 high school students come to their practice with the regional training center as compared to the six or seven they had last year. The club team will also have wrestlers competing in two novice tournaments this year which will allow the new wrestlers they recruited last year to gain even more experience. However, the process of becoming a varsity D-I team is still ahead of them.

It is clear that Zavuholnik has a plan to work towards achieving this lofty goal. “The club is acting as the demonstrative interest portion of women’s wrestling on campus, and I’ve been working a lot with administration,” she explained. “Going forward I’m going to be working with alumni and setting up an endowment for the women’s wrestling program. Having said that, the men’s program is not fully endowed, so it is a really big hurdle to overcome.”

However, this change would not only affect Cornell Athletics but also the whole wrestling community. The Cornell Men’s Wrestling team, a Division I varsity team, competes in both the Ivy League and the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association (EIWA). The executive director of the EIWA, Gene Nighman ’81, is a Cornell Wrestling alum and an All-American for the Big Red.

With schools like Cornell, the change of creating a women’s varsity wrestling team would also promote changes in organizations and conferences like the EIWA, where there are no opportunities for women to compete in the organization unless they are part of a men’s team.

Zavuholnik told me, “It’s a big, fancy, glittery world of Division I Men’s Wrestling, and that’s why a lot of women look to that and look to be on the men’s team somehow. However, I think that there’s so much value in building these opportunities for women.”

In a discussion with Nighman, the former Cornell wrestler expressed his perspective on the situation. “I am very, very supportive of the growth of women’s wrestling at the collegiate level,” he proclaimed. “I just know at the Division I level it’s more of a challenge.”

However, because there are currently only four Division I Women’s Wrestling programs, he also posited that staying at the club level for longer might make more logistical sense: “Cornell already offers the most opportunities for women to compete in sports than any other university, so there are a lot of other universities that have more incentive to start a women’s wrestling program than Cornell does.” He advocates for Cornell women’s wrestling to build up their club and then push to become a varsity team later when there are more D-I varsity teams for them to compete with and when there is more support from alumni for the program.

With the process of becoming a varsity team being so difficult and daunting, it might seem futile to even attempt such a task right now, as if just building the club team is a better or more feasible option. Nevertheless, the wrestlers know that the benefits of becoming a varsity team span more than just receiving recognition and Big Red athletic merchandise.

“The ultimate goal is varsity because you have access to so many different resources. With these resources, you have a mental health person to go to, you have a nutritionist to go to, and it’s really, really validating for women to have an official NCAA varsity program as compared to a club,” Zavuholnik emphasized.

The media has recently shed much light on the mental health strains that professional athletes face, and student-athletes are similarly afflicted with stress related to their sports in addition to the pressures of an academic environment like Cornell’s. For these women, having access to these mental health resources could be game-changing. Additionally, in a sport like wrestling where weight is an integral aspect, having access to assets like a nutritionist would be a massive help. As Zavuholnik mentioned, these opportunities can be incredibly empowering for women and allow them to build their confidence, supporting them both in their current athletics and in their future pursuits in wrestling or otherwise.

While talking to other women in club sports at Cornell, I found that they admired the women’s club wrestling team for working to become a varsity team and for working to advance women’s sports in general. They thought that it would be great to see a varsity women’s wrestling team and hoped that the women’s club wrestling team would be successful in achieving this goal.

Members of the varsity men’s wrestling team at Cornell have also supported the women’s club team in this endeavor. Two of Cornell’s most successful wrestlers, two-time Pan American gold medalist, 2023 national champion, and reigning world 61kg champion Vito Arujau ‘24 and four-time NCAA Division I champion, two-time US World Team member, 2020 Pan American champion and two-time age group world champion Yianni Diakomihalis ‘23 helped coach a practice that the women’s club team co-hosted with the regional training center for high school girls. The head coach of the men’s wrestling team, Mike Grey ’11, has also helped the women’s club team, granting them access to the Friedman Wrestling Center. As Zavuholnik noted, “[Grey] has been an amazing supporter, and I am extremely thankful to have him on our side.”

Photo Credits: Cornell University Athletics

Even though opportunities for female wrestlers are limited, Zavuholnik and Garcia have committed to working towards building a future for women’s wrestling. As a junior, Garcia is considering a career in coaching after graduating from Cornell. “I love coaching! It’s something I’m considering doing after graduating from here. It’s something I’m really passionate about.”

Although Kate is going to be participating in the Cornell in Washington program in the spring and will be away from Ithaca, she will continue to help grow women’s wrestling: “I have an internship with Wrestle Like a Girl, which is the only non-profit in the United States that is dedicated towards growing girl’s and women’s wrestling, so they work with state governments. There are still a few states that need to sanction girl’s wrestling to officially recognize it as a sport and have a championship at the state level. They also work with a lot of governing bodies like USA wrestling.”

Their commitment to the sport shows how dedicated the women’s wrestling world is to growing itself, creating more opportunities for young women, and ensuring that this sport is definitely here to stay.

“We really need this to grow as a society,” said Zavuholnik. “You know, it’s time. Wrestling is no longer just a man’s sport.”


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