In a small, dim room in the east complex of Moriarty High School, a group of girls wearing tights prepare to grapple.
Mats cover the floor wall-to-wall in the old building that was the original Moriarty Elementary School.
As the girls get into position, one girl gets down on her hands and knees, motionless, her eyes locked forward. Another girl kneels beside her with her arms wrapped around her as though she is going to try and pick her up.
On their coach’s cue they twist and turn, grab at each other and apply various moves as they attempt to pin the other’s shoulders to the mat.
They are members of Moriarty High’s first-ever girls wrestling team. They don’t possess any stereotypical physical attributes. They are not stocky, hulking heavyweights with enough body mass to flip a Toyota Prius.
And despite having to practice in a cramped room—a temporary facility during the construction project in the school’s main gym—the girls go at each other with gladiator-like intensity as though they’re battling for a medal at the state championships.
“The exercise and the adrenaline of the competition, I like that a lot,” Moriarty junior Avelina Archuleta said about why she joined the girls wrestling team. “I’ve done grappling since I was like 10, grappling’s like MMA, and this is kinda like that.”
“I wanted to try something new before I graduate, to keep me in shape before track,” senior Domniarre “Mimi” Notah added regarding her reasons for joining.
For years, a relatively small number of girls have wrestled—against boys—on high school teams around the country, including Moriarty High sisters Araceli and Caia Kamplain. But the competition between males and females has been more of an exhibition because in most states, including New Mexico, girls have not been allowed to officially compete at the state championships.
There have even been incidents where males refused to wrestle against females. According to the Denver Post, a high school wrestler in Colorado forfeited his shot at a state title in February after refusing to wrestle girls at the state championships, citing his personal and religious beliefs.
Araceli Kamplain, a senior in her third year of wrestling for Moriarty, said her coach and the boys on her team have always been very supportive, but she has experienced occasional gender bias from boys on other teams.
“Last year at the [Pinto] Duals, I beat a boy and their entire team was rude to me,” Araceli Kamplain said.
In June, the New Mexico Activities Association became the 18th state to sanction girls’ wrestling as an official sport.
“Girls have always participated in the boys’ division,” Dusty Young, associate director for the NMAA, said. “The last couple of years we held competition for girls at the state championships for girls only, in an exhibition format, and we had a lot of interest. Because of that interest we took it to our board of directors to see if the members wanted to pass it, and they did, and here we are.”
The NMAA’s decision reflects the growth that girls wrestling has experienced nationwide over the last decade.
According to the Annual High School Sports Participation Survey, done each year by the National Federation of State High School Associations, or NFHS, girls wrestling grew from 5,000 participants in 2008 to 16,562 in 2018.
The NFHS says participation in high school girls wrestling has doubled in just the past six years and estimates that more than 20,000 girls will be participating in high school wrestling programs for the 2019-20 season.
“It’s very exciting for the sport, we see it growing year after year,” Young said.
Moriarty’s head wrestling coach Bryan Stiverson said he has seen a spike in interest in girls wrestling since the NMAA’s decision.
“There is a huge support for it. Some of the girls have brothers who wrestle, we have three who came in on their own, but the sanctioning really got them in,” Stiverson said. “We’re kind of hoping more will see what these girls are doing and come out and compete.”
Stiverson said he currently has nine girls and thinks if they stay committed and work on the fundamentals they’ll do well.
“I think we have a real shot to have these girls place at state,” Stiverson said.
The girls will travel with the boys during dual meets and will also have a few girls-only meets, like the Pinto Duals on Jan. 3, and the Socorro and Aztec tournaments on Jan. 17 and Jan. 24, respectively.
A statement on the NMAA’s website notes that girls will still be eligible to wrestle boys in the regular season, but they will have to compete with their own gender in the postseason.
“We still don’t have the numbers of participation and not all schools will have girls’ teams, so they’ll be offered the opportunity to wrestle boys,” Young said.
Moriarty’s girls said they’re ready and raring to get out there and feel the rush of pinning an opponent.
“It’s the adrenaline,” Archuleta said. “First, you’re struggling to [pin an opponent], and then once you get it, it’s like, ‘Ahh, I did it.’”
“And then you get up from the mat and you’re like, ‘Yeah!’” Caia Kamplain said, making a fist in front of her body and pulling it toward her stomach in a celebratory gesture. Repeating the fist-gesture as an emotional exclamation point, she said, “You go, ‘Yeah!’”