Alaska girl makes history with wrestling title
Hutchison is turning heads by beating the boys
Religious tenets forbid girls to wrestle with boys at two Anchorage schools
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Notable Women

Alaska girl makes history with wrestling title

Michaela Hutchison became the first girl in the nation to win a state high school wrestling title while competing against boys.

Hutchison won the final of the 103-pound weight class during Alaska's big school wrestling championships. The Skyview High sophomore entered the state tournament ranked No. 1 in her weight class.

Amid chants of "C'mon Michaela" and "Girl Power," Hutchison earned a 1-0 victory Saturday over Colony High School's Aaron Boss.

She scored an escape with 16 seconds left to beat Boss for the second time in as many weeks. Family and friends mobbed Hutchison as she walked away from the mat with a bloody nose, while the crowd rose in a standing ovation.

"They were helping me," Hutchison told the Anchorage Daily News.

She finished the season with a 45-4 record that included 33 pins, one shy of the state single-season record. Hutchison is the third in her family of 10 children to win a state title, joining brothers Zeb and Eli.

Source: msn.foxsports.com/other/story/5310724?CMP=OTC-K9B140813162&ATT=230

Hutchison is turning heads by beating the boys

Shy and soft-spoken off the wrestling mat, Michaela Hutchison says plenty on it.

Hutchison, a freshman at Skyview, is the only ranked female wrestler in Alaska. She is currently fourth at 103 pounds, though she was third as recently as last week.

She is ranked because she routinely dispels the notion that girls can't compete with boys.

And she does this by routinely beating many of them.

At last weekend's Glenn Vandergaw Classic at Dimond, Hutchison lost only once, a heartbreaking overtime decision in the semifinals, and took third at the tournament.

Because of her prowess against boys or girls, Hutchison has quickly established herself as a torchbearer of sorts for girls wrestling.

That's fitting because Hutchison's older sister, Melina, was one of the first-ever female place-winners at a state wrestling tournament when she took third in 2000 at the 4A championships alongside Homer Olympian Tela O'Donnell, who took sixth that same year.

Michaela is still considered by many coaches and fellow wrestlers as the likeliest girl to win a state title, if not this season, then possibly as a sophomore or junior.

"She's got as good a shot (to win state) as any boy her weight or age," said Skyview coach Neldon Gardner.

Her coach isn't the only person saying this. Accolades for Hutchison come from coaches around Alaska.

"She's one of the best 103-pounders in the state, boy or girl," said South coach Tom Ritchie Jr. "She is the real deal."

And Kodiak's Pat Costello, who has been coaching that program for 15 years, says: "Michaela is the best girl wrestler I've seen."

Despite the praise, Hutchison remains modest, even self-effacing.

"I still don't feel like I'm very good," she said. "I just want to get better."

Clearly, Hutchison is at the forefront of the dozens of girls who wrestle varsity in Alaska, even though she doesn't feel anything like a role model.

She views herself as just a wrestler -- not a "girl wrestler" either -- and many are beginning to view her and the growing number of girls competing in a boy-dominated sport the same way.

"They're getting technically way better," Costello said.

Almost technically as good as boys, especially at the lower weights. Girls know they are still at a disadvantage at the middle and heavy weights because they're not as strong as the boys in those divisions.

That doesn't prevent Hutchison, or the other two girls on Skyview's team, from challenging boys, even if they're heavier and stronger.

"We'll wrestle anybody that's close in weight," Hutchison said.

It's that attitude, and the ability to back it up, that has people taking note of the strides female wrestlers have made in Alaska.

But while Hutchison and many other girls in this state have come a long way, earning respect and establishing themselves as equals on the mat, they can go further still.


The history of girls wrestling in Alaska is cloudy. Many of Alaska's large-school coaches said girls first began showing up for wrestling tryouts in the mid-1990s, although former ACS wrestler Jason Hofacker -- who just last month hung up his whistle as the ACS wrestling coach after seven years -- remembered girls wrestling at the small-school level in the late 1980s.

Regardless of when girls started going toe-to-toe with boys on the mat, they didn't truly make their mark until 2000. That's when Melina Hutchison and O'Donnell became place-winners at state -- and instant pioneers.

On Dec. 16, 2000, Melina Hutchison, wrestling at 112 pounds, placed third and O'Donnell, wrestling at 119, placed sixth at the fall state wrestling championships in Kenai, solidifying their legacy in the sport.

"I think Melina and Tela did wonders for girls wrestling," Gardner said. "When they came into the picture, it wasn't like guys were saying, 'Oh, you got this one.' They beat a good portion of the boys."

Numerous girls cited both Melina Hutchison and O'Donnell as either the reason they got involved with wrestling or their motivation for sticking with it once they reached high school.

For all the influence Melina Hutchison and O'Donnell have had on girls wrestling in Alaska, however, it was Michaela Hutchison who actually turned her older sister onto the sport.

"I started before her," said Michaela, who has wrestled for seven years.

Long before that, in the early 1970s, the roots of girls wrestling in the United States were forming. In 1972, Congress passed Title IX legislation to provide equal educational and athletic opportunities for women.

Due to Title IX, many universities eliminated wrestling because it was for men only. But over time, universities that wanted to keep wrestling instead decided to create equitable women's programs.

The popularity of those programs -- and the added scholarship opportunities -- created the need for developing wrestlers at the high school level.

At the same time, high schools began allowing girls to compete alongside boys in wrestling.

The numbers have grown ever since. In Alaska, the number of girls wrestling has steadily increased. Of the 1,267 high school wrestlers during the 2004-05 school year, 74 were girls, according to the Alaska School Activities Association.

That's roughly 6 percent of wrestlers. That also represents an increase of about 50 percent from the reported 36 girls who wrestled during the 2002-03 school year.

If the numbers continue to increase, credit might go to one Alaskan, O'Donnell, who in 2004 earned a spot on Team USA for the debut of women's wrestling at the Summer Olympics.

O'Donnell's journey to Athens, Greece, and her matches there, were chronicled extensively by local and national media.

Before O'Donnell earned her trip to the Olympic Games, though, she was just a student at Nikiski High, living with the family of former Nikiski wrestling coach and current Sitka assistant wrestling coach Steve Gillaspie and undergoing the training that would eventually make her a wrestling icon in Alaska and in the United States.

Gillaspie's daughter Abby, who still talks with O'Donnell regularly, has fond memories of O'Donnell living under the same roof and ultimately convincing the then-seventh-grader to give the sport a try.

"I never saw a girl wrestle until Tela," Abby said. "She was my inspiration to get into the sport."

Sister Act

Though O'Donnell isn't related to Gillaspie, she nonetheless played a sisterly role for the aspiring wrestler, and it's clear that many girls get into wrestling because of an older sibling's influence.

West sophomore Aubrae Putnam's older brother Cody formerly wrestled for West, and his practice sessions at home all but guaranteed that little sis would end up on the mat someday.

"He used me as his wrestling dummy," Putnam said. "Now I get to fight back."

Putnam loves fighting back, and she loves fighting aggressively, especially when it's a boy across the mat from her.

"It's the best feeling beating a guy," she said. Especially the guys who tell Putnam, "I'm going to beat the crap out you."

Like Putnam, Lathrop sophomore Leah Bachert's older brother wrestled when he was in high school. So did Bachert's sister. Since she looked up to her older siblings and thought wrestling "looked really cool," Bachert wound up in the sport.

She's been wrestling for seven years, first as a freestyle and middle school wrestler and now as a varsity wrestler. She's never been made to feel like an outsider.

Girls today say they are welcomed into the testosterone-fueled wrestling rooms, but that wasn't always the case.

Tom Ritchie Sr., the longtime Lathrop coach who also coached at North Pole, remembers being "shunned by some people for allowing it" after first allowing girls in the mid-90s.

Even Skyview's Gardner remembers a little hesitation.

"The first time a girl walked into my room I was like, 'Oh, I don't know,' " he said.

Now Gardner and the rest of Alaska's coaches know that girls have as much right to compete as boys. They've become fixtures in wrestling rooms across the state. And they've become the sisters, to each other and to the boys they compete alongside.

"They're totally accepted," Gardner said.

There are still some gender issues being resolved, like ensuring there are separate locker rooms and separate weigh-in facilities before meets and tournaments. But the biggest issue surrounding girls wrestling arises after a match -- when a girl beats a boy.

Battle of the Sexes

One of Putnam's favorite T-shirts was a gift from former West wrestler Iris Mucha. It reads: "You wish you could wrestle like a girl."

Putnam is one of two girls wrestling for West, a school that also figures into the lore of girls wrestling history because as a sophomore, Mucha became the first girl from Region IV -- and the fourth statewide -- to qualify for a state tournament.

When Mucha wrestled and beat boys to qualify for state, or when Melina Hutchison and O'Donnell did the same, they began eradicating the notion that losing to a girl wasn't the end of the world.

Girls today encounter the same thing, albeit less often.

"When I first started, I'd hear people say to them, 'Oh, you got beat by a girl!' " Bachert said. "Lately it doesn't seem like that big of a deal. People are more accustomed to girls wrestling."

And the girls are more accustomed to succeeding at a sport where they've sometimes struggled.

"The stigma against wrestling girls isn't what it used to be," Costello said. "They have beaten enough guys to earn respect.

Girls have earned the respect of most boys, like Chugiak sophomore Brady Schultz (112), who learned first-hand to respect girl wrestlers. He lost to Bachert last season, although he beat her at the end of last season and also at last weekend's Glenn Vandergaw Classic.

"You're kind of nervous cause you don't want to lose and get made fun of," Schultz said. "But you respect what they can do."

Schultz, along with other guys, said they must go as hard against girls as they do against other boys, and coaches all said they instruct their wrestlers to do that too.

"We don't coach 'em any other way," said Chugiak coach David Bierria.

That's fine by most girls, who view wrestling boys as a way to make them better.

"I like wrestling guys cause most of the girls I wrestle aren't as into it," Bachert said. "The guys are more of a challenge."

Boys face a pretty big challenge if they lose to a girl -- deciding whether or not to stick with the sport. West coach Paul Kongaika said he has seen boys quit the sport after losing to a girl because there still exists an undercurrent, "If you get beat by a girl, it's time to find a different sport."

Ritchie Jr. agreed, noting that if a boy this season loses to anyone but Michaela Hutchison, it can be devastating.

"Michaela is pretty well respected, she's beaten hundreds of guys in Alaska," he said. "But people who aren't around the sport don't know that. It's kind of a no-win situation for the guys."

What the Future Holds

Abby Gillaspie has to endure almost five more months as a junior at Sitka High, but she is about to begin working on her senior project -- coordinating an all-girls open wrestling tournament in Sitka that will follow the Class 4A state tournament in February 2006.

She hopes to draw the top varsity girls from around Alaska as well as up-and-coming junior varsity girls. She also hopes to get O'Donnell to town to hold workshops and provide some motivational speeches.

That could be a portent of things to come for girls wrestling in Alaska. Some coaches and athletes said they'd like to see a separate girls division at the large- and small-school state tournaments, although the numbers statewide would need to increase before that becomes a reality.

With the growing number of girls becoming interested in a sport long dominated by boys, however, the prospect of an all-girl division at state -- something other states have done -- could happen, even if the numbers seem slim at first.

"There won't be very many at first, but there will be soon," Costello said. "The girls are here, they wrestle hard and they're good. There's no doubt (an all-girl division will happen)."

Most of the girls wrestling in high school today are less concerned with how much they draw newcomers to the sport than how well they do in their respective matches.

But there's no doubt that as ambassadors for the sport, wrestlers like Leah Bachert and Abby Gillaspie are there to inspire young girls the way Melina Hutchison and Tela O'Donnell have inspired them.

"I would encourage them," Bachert said, "even if they're not getting it right away."

Michaela Hutchison -- by no means a crusader for girls wrestling with her words but certainly with her ability -- also would encourage young girls to take a chance and follow their heart. Her one simple piece of advice?

"I'd just say, 'Do it.' "
Source: Eric Smith, e-mail, Anchorage Daily News www.adn.com/sports/story/6042347p-5931381c.html

Religious tenets forbid girls to wrestle with boys at two Anchorage schools

Girls wrestling hasn't been welcomed everywhere.

Two Anchorage private schools, Anchorage Christian and Grace Christian, won't allow girls to wrestle.

The schools, each affiliated with local churches, have policies prohibiting girls on the team, rules rooted in religious tenets.

Jason Hofacker, a 1991 graduate of ACS who returned to his alma mater to coach, has spent the past nine years as the school's wrestling coach and the past three as athletic director.

He said the policy is in place for a simple reason -- it would contradict everything held sacred at Anchorage Baptist Temple and Anchorage Christian Schools.

"We teach these kids at church and at school that girls are to be respected, and then we tell them, 'Now go and beat them up'?" he said.

Unlike public schools, ACS and Grace Christian write their own policies and codes of conduct.

"We are a private school so we hope that people respect our rules," Hofacker said.

Hofacker said no one has ever challenged the school's policy of refusing to let girls wrestle, but if someone did it could mean the end of wrestling at ACS.

"We would probably shut down our program before we allow that to happen," he said.

Back when Hofacker was a freshman at the school in the late 1980s and found himself paired against a girl at the regional tournament, he had to forfeit his match because ACS wrestlers weren't allowed to compete against girls.

ACS now requires its wrestlers to have parental consent to compete against girls should such a pairing happen at a tournament.

A huge proponent of girls athletics and of wrestling, Hofacker was quick to point out that he "would be in full support of girls having their own season" and their own team.

Grace Christian athletic director Susan Cantwell-Long echoed that sentiment.

"As an athletic administrator I think now is the time to have schools form girls-only teams," she said in an e-mail. "It would help balance Title IX mandates as well as I think bring out more participation by females if they didn't have to wrestle guys."
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