Upon walking into Grace Hall for her first women’s wrestling practice in the fall, first-year Victoria Swider immediately felt challenged.
She had never been on a wrestling mat before and found learning the moves and strategy of a foreign sport overwhelming.
“I had absolutely no clue what I was doing,” Swider said. “It’s technically complicated.”
Swider grew up in New York, where she developed a love for watching wrestling at a young age. When she reached high school, she was interested in competing, but barriers stood in the way.
She wanted to wrestle competitively in high school, but she had already committed to the robotics team — and her school did not have a women’s wrestling team.
“It was just a men’s team, and I was not 100% comfortable with that,” Swider said.
Swider said she signed up for Lehigh’s women’s wrestling team at the school’s fall club fair and began showing up to practices. She slowly began to understand the rules of the sport, and as the semester progressed, so did her wrestling moves.
She is part of a group of about 10 women who consistently show up to women’s wrestling practices. She said newcomers rely on a small group of experienced members to help them learn the technique they need to compete.
One of these experienced members is junior Giselle Kimball. Kimball grew up in Nevada, which officially adopted women’s wrestling as a high school sport last fall. When she was in high school, she competed in competitions against boys.
Since arriving at Lehigh, Kimball has been one of the founding members of the women’s wrestling club, assuming a mentor role for the younger and less experienced wrestlers like Swider.
“(Guiding my teammates is) the best part about practices,” Kimball said. “I feel like no matter what your skill level is, we’re all trying to figure it out together.”
Kimball said the team has focused on competition this year, appearing in exhibition matches during different men’s competitions throughout the year.
On March 5, Kimball secured a pin during an exhibition match against a wrestler from MIT during the second day of the EIWA Championships. Spectating beside the mat were Lehigh wrestling coaches and alumni with shirts that boasted “SUPPORT WOMEN’S WRESTLING.”
During a men’s wrestling match against Army on Feb. 4 at Grace Hall, Kimball faced a wrestler from Alvernia University in front of a home crowd.
“Everybody who was there to watch the men’s matches got to see that Lehigh has a women’s program, and they’re trying to start something,” Kimball said. “That definitely caught people’s eyes.”
Lehigh is not the only school trying to gain momentum for women’s wrestling.
On Feb. 14, Pennsylvania reached a major milestone in women’s wrestling when Pennridge High School became the 100th school to establish a women’s wrestling team. Reaching 100 schools allows the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association to table a vote to make women’s wrestling a fully sanctioned high school sport.
Upon reaching Lehigh after wrestling in high school for three years, club president and junior Tess McGinley said she was interested in helping Pennsylvania reach the amount of schools needed for sanctioning.
“It is just so inspiring to have those programs so that those girls will have a path to compete in college,” McGinley said.
Swider said continued recognition of women’s wrestling at the high school level will remove barriers that may be keeping women from competing, just as they did when she was younger.
She said the sport’s progression is one of the reasons she wants to continue attending practices.
“I want to be a part of growing the club,” Swider said. “Hopefully (I can) also do some work with high schoolers and show them that wrestling is for everybody.”