The most legendary college wrestling program is embracing the sport’s future this week inside historic Gallagher-Iba Arena.
The Oklahoma State wrestling program is hosting its annual wrestling camp – in which the entire basketball court of GIA is covered from wall-to-wall in wrestling mats – with both boys and girls learning to improve their technique in wrestling.
Getting girls to turn out for the camp, which is run by both coaching staff and current Cowboy wrestlers, is nothing new for Oklahoma State. But this year it may be a little more prevalent.
Back in the spring, Broken Arrow became the first school in Oklahoma to create a girls’ varsity wrestling program as the interest in the sport among females in the state – and across the country – is on the rise. This past school year in Oklahoma, 87 girls wrestled as a part of the OSSAA sanctioned sport that was predominantly male.
“I think the more and more that girls and women in the sport see the opportunity to be able to compete in the high school sport, I think more and more will come out,” Oklahoma State associate head wrestling coach Zack Esposito said. “With Oklahoma having a sanctioned team, I think it’s awesome. Just having that opportunity, more and more females are going to come out to these camps, to practices and just a lot more stuff.”
It’s not just in Oklahoma in which women’s wrestling is on the rise.
In April, Kansas’ state high school athletic association voted to introduce girls’ wrestling – one of 16 high school state associations with sanctioned girls divisions. A few short weeks ago, the NCAA Committee of Women’s Athletics recommended all three divisions of the NCAA to add wrestling to the NCAA Emerging Sports for Women program. There are over a dozen universities across the country that are adding women’s wrestling programs for the upcoming seasons – among Divisions II and III.
“Parents are starting to see the opportunities for their young daughters, so a lot of them – like you would see with a boy wrestler – are getting them more involved at a younger age,” Esposito said. “Every year, we’re starting to see more and more. It’s a good thing.”
While the groundswell of female wrestling is starting to hit the state, the surge of young male wrestlers in Oklahoma is also on the rise.
A large contingent of the campers at Oklahoma State – which range from high school down to under 10 years old – were athletes in elementary school.
“I’ve got my little boy out there, too,” Esposito said. “Some times as an instructor, it’s tougher because you are dealing with a wide age gap. But for the most part, it’s good.
“We’ve got some 6 year olds and 7 year olds, and that’s exposure. That’s more mat time, that’s them getting more comfortable with it. They are going to be learning the right things.”
With many of those young wrestlers coming from within the state – though some traveling from around the country – for Oklahoma State redshirt freshman Bear Hughes, who is one of the workers at the camp, it’s a draw to his roots.
The Coweta native participated in two Oklahoma State wrestling camps in his youth, before becoming a two-time Oklahoma high school state champion and an All-American in Greco at the 2017 Junior Nationals. He’s now getting a chance to pay it forward with the youth arriving to the Stillwater campus.
“It’s pretty cool being on the team now and seeing all these kids come up here,” Hughes said. “… I’ve had a great time giving back and coaching the younger kids because everybody had done it for me. It’s a good experience.”
Those in attendance this year are also getting a unique opportunity with some international flavor.
Zoheir El-Ouarraqe, of France, has been training in Stillwater the past few months and has been a coach for the Cowboy Wrestling Club. On Monday, he ran the drills for the several hundred in attendance at the technique camp.
“Zo’s been a great addition as a club coach and club athlete – it showed this weekend with Daton Fix, a guy that he’s been able to work out with through our (Regional Training Center),” Esposito said. “It’s just different experience for these kids. He’s been around the whole world competing, he’s been on seven French national teams, took third at the European Championships and overseas he actually has degrees in teaching younger kids, so he has a little more patience, a lot more games and can actually reach these kids a lot easier than maybe us who are dealing with college kids.”