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Girls wrestling growing fast in Illinois, but equity with boys an issue

The match was over in seconds.

New Trier High School junior Jillian Giller, 16, yanked her opponent to the ground, wrapped her right arm under the girl’s right leg and, with a few quick thrusts, pinned the girl’s shoulders to the mat. It was the first of what would be two victories for Jillian that Friday night, both against opponents above her 140-pound weight class.

Jillian was one of at least 60 other girls from area high schools who packed a curtained-off section of Adlai E. Stevenson High School’s sprawling field house for the Dec. 15 girls invitational wrestling tournament, competing in what has become the fastest growing high school sport in Illinois.

In years past, girls who wanted to wrestle in high school either had to do so at the club level or join the boys teams at their schools. And with few female participants, that typically meant matches against boys.

That all started to change three years ago, when the Illinois High School Association officially sanctioned girls wrestling as a sport.

Since then, participation has skyrocketed.

In the last two years, the number of girls competing in high school wrestling has doubled, to 2,400 this season, IHSA figures show. More than 350 Illinois high schools have girls on their wrestling teams, the agency said, an increase of 114 from the previous year.

“We knew there was growth there, and a potential for girls wrestling to be a really strong sport,” said Sam Knox, an IHSA assistant executive director who oversees wrestling and other sports. “We’ve been pleasantly surprised and excited at how quickly it’s grown in the last few years.”

Still, some parents say their daughters’ high schools have been slow to devote resources to the sport, leaving girls without their own teams or dedicated coaches and with fewer chances to compete.

“You almost feel like you’re getting the scraps as a girl,” said Tressa Atkinson, 46, whose daughter Dempsey is a junior wrestler on the boys team at Rochelle Township High School, about 25 miles south of Rockford.

“We decided there’s girls wrestling in Illinois … but if your school isn’t willing to put in the money for a program, those girls are limited in the opportunities they have.”

Scott and Jenifer Giller said they’ve spent the last two years asking New Trier to correct perceived inequities in the girls wrestling program. The back-and-forth between the parents and school staff reached a tipping point last month when the Wilmette couple filed a formal complaint accusing the school of violating Title IX protections against sex discrimination in education.

Jillian Giller, of New Trier High School, fist-bumps her dad, Scott Giller, following a defeat during a girls wrestling invitational meet at Lane Tech High School on Dec. 16, 2023.

Among the allegations in their complaint: The school was slow to give Jillian a female-specific uniform, to hire dedicated coaching staff for the girls team and to create a schedule of matches that was both independent of the boys team and offered girls a comparable amount of chances to compete.

While some of those allegations have since been remedied, the Gillers’ complaint also accuses coaches of verbally harassing their daughter as retaliation for her parents’ efforts to voice their concerns with the program.

“We knew what she deserved under Title IX, and I think the school really resented that because their plan was to let the program develop at a pace they wanted to grow it at,” Jenifer Giller, 45, said. “And we came in and started to force them into it. They became resentful.”

A New Trier spokesperson declined to comment on the Gillers’ allegations, citing the school’s internal review process of the couple’s complaint.

Jillian was 12 when she traded Brazilian jujitsu for wrestling, following in the footsteps of her dad, Scott, 51, who said he’s been involved with grappling sports for 37 years, both as a participant and coach.

At the time, roughly half of all state high school athletic associations in the country formally recognized girls wrestling as a sport, according to the nonprofit Wrestle Like a Girl. Today, that number sits at 44 states.

Girls wrestle during an invitational meet at Lane Tech High School, Dec. 16, 2023.

“Girls and women’s wrestling should be its own separate vertical, with its own coaches, own uniforms, own teams, own everything, and let girls develop their own culture for how they want to exist,” said Wrestle Like a Girl founder and CEO Sally Roberts. “We need a place for girls to understand how to use their strength, how to find their voice and use their power.”

In Illinois, Fred Arkin and his fellow board members with the Illinois Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association drove conversations with coaches, athletic directors and the IHSA on joining that list.

“I think wrestling is a great sport,” said Arkin, 67, a former wrestler and coach at Oak Park and River Forest High School. “The toughest thing to do in all of sport is to step on a wrestling mat. When you’re out there in a match, it’s you versus your opponent. You don’t have anyone backing you up … and you have to rely on all of your preparation and techniques, your mental agility and physical conditioning.”

The IHSA officially sanctioned girls wrestling starting with the 2021-22 season. Arkin said some schools quickly established separate girls teams with their own coaches and schedules not entirely tied to boys meets. Others moved slower, waiting to see if there was a demand.

“Wrestling has always been a grassroots sport,” Arkin said. “It’s been coaches, parents and girls themselves who have put it together and gone to administration and asked for resources.”

Mike Conrad said his daughter Katerina was one of maybe four girls who joined the boys wrestling team at Maine West High School. Two seasons later, after girls wrestling became an IHSA-sanctioned sport, Conrad said he and his daughter watched with dismay as other high schools — including other District 207 schools — created girls wrestling teams.

Maine West was not one of them. Instead, Conrad said, his daughter continued to wrestle on the boys team, wearing wrestling singlets designed for boys, which typically are cut lower and offer less chest coverage.

Conrad said the athletic director at the time, who has since stepped down from the position, told him there weren’t enough girls who wanted to wrestle to support the creation of a separate team.

“It’s almost like they don’t want to have to deal with this,” said Conrad, 54. “I think there are some out there who think girls don’t belong in wrestling.”

The school started a girls wrestling team for the 2023-24 season. And Conrad’s daughter, who graduated this spring, is now a freshman at Lakeland University in Wisconsin, where she’s one of nine members of the women’s wrestling team.

“She’s wrestling pretty much every weekend once the season starts,” Conrad said. “She’s doing phenomenal. I credit a lot to the coach. He cares a lot.”

Over in Rochelle Township, Atkinson said she’s been told by the high school that there aren’t enough girls to field a wrestling team. Her daughter Dempsey was the only girl to join the boys team her freshman year, Atkinson said. Then she was one of three. This season, six girls initially came out, but that number has since been cut in half.

Dempsey Atkinson, in chair, records a boys wrestling match during an invitational meet at DeKalb High School in DeKalb on Dec. 29, 2023. Her school, Rochelle Township High School, doesn't have a girls team.

Atkinson thinks more would take up the sport if the school had a designated girls team.

“It’s intimidating to join a boys program and be part of boys practice,” she said. “Instead of encouraging the numbers, we’re just kind of sitting on our hands and saying it’s not going to happen instead of going through the trouble of making it happen.”

Atkinson said her daughter and the other girls on the wrestling team often don’t know if they’re going to wrestle a boy or girl when they show up to matches, if they wrestle at all.

“She’s gone to multiple matches where she hasn’t wrestled,” Atkinson said.

In her sophomore season, Dempsey took second in sectionals at 145 pounds and earned a trip to the state championship, where she finished in the top-12 for her weight class. This year, though, the 16-year-old has struggled to find opportunities to compete. She had about six matches through late December, her mom said, estimating that boys her age had wrestled at least three times as much.

“As parents, you try to give them the most opportunities to succeed, but when you feel like there are things in your way, you want to push through those things,” she said. “And we’re just being met with resistance.”

Jillian Giller took to wrestling instantly.

“This is the first sport — I played tennis for a while before this — where I truly believe I can be really, really good,” she said. “I can get better at it. I love this. This is nothing I’d want to give up.”

Her freshman year at New Trier, she heard an announcement inviting students to attend an open wrestling practice. Curious, she went that first day and kept going back.

Those first two seasons were shaky. She had two options for uniforms: A boys singlet, with its limited chest coverage, or a shirt and basketball shorts (she chose the shorts).

At first, she was the only girl on the team, wrestling mostly exhibition matches against other boys in her weight class. Eventually two more girls would join. This season, she’s one of nine on the girls team.

Jillian Giller works out at her Wilmette home, Dec. 27, 2023.
Jillian Giller, of New Trier High School, warms up before a girls wrestling match at Stevenson High School, Dec. 15, 2023.

Despite its growing ranks, the team’s schedule remained sparse, Jillian and her parents said.

In January 2023, the Gillers met with school administrators to lay out their concerns: Their daughter and her teammates were being given half the number of matches compared to boys. The team was missing out on weekly opportunities to compete in girls wrestling tournaments and instead being relegated to attend meets with the boys team. Basic information — what time the bus departs for a meet, whether there’s a pound allowance for wrestlers, or whether their opponents would be bringing a girls team to face — was either late or not provided.

They had no dedicated coach. No branded uniforms or warm-ups. No recruitment campaign to bring more girls into the fold.

Some of those concerns were addressed instantly. The day after their meeting, the Gillers said, the girls team was given female-cut singlets and warm-ups, both printed with New Trier insignia. Additional matches were scheduled for the end of the 2022-23 season, and a dedicated coach and assistant coach were assigned to the girls team for the 2023-24 season.

By this September, with a new wrestling season on the horizon, the Gillers said they were again dismayed to see a girls schedule that continued to offer fewer opportunities for the girls to compete than the boys team and continued to send Jillian and her teammates to boys events instead of girls-only tournaments.

“What’s troubling is our challenges didn’t come because of a lack of means,” Jenifer Giller said. “New Trier has means to make whatever needs to happen, happen. If they could allow a girls program to be noncompliant without their attention, that’s a shame. But when they fought us on it, that’s strange.”

More matches were later added to this season’s schedule. But by then, another concern rose to the forefront. The Gillers said their daughter became the target of retaliation for her parents’ efforts, beginning during her sophomore season and extending to today.

Their complaint outlines four instances when Jillian was “reprimanded” for socializing with competitors at a tournament, or asking basic questions before a meet — what time does the bus leave and will there be girls to wrestle — or celebrating a victory at the sectional tournament, where Jillian would go on to qualify for the state championship.

This season, the Gillers said their daughter was passed over for a co-captain spot on the team despite being the only wrestler — male or female — to qualify for state last season. She was told by coaches that she had a bad reputation, that she needed to grow, that she wrongly thought coaches sought retribution against her.

The tension has been, at times, unbearable, Jillian said.

“I don’t want to show up to practice anymore and be like, what’s going to happen next?” she said. “I love wrestling. It’s something I’ve loved to do for a while. I’m a little worried something bad is going to happen.”

It’s unclear when New Trier’s internal review of the Giller complaint will be finished.

“They need to build a program with coaches who believe in the sport and the value that girls bring to this program,” Jenifer Giller said. “That’s what’s really missing. They’re clearly not interested in supporting it, and that robs the girls of this.”

As for Jillian, she beams at the thought of continuing to wrestle in college and beyond.

“When I’m in my 30s, I’m probably not going to be wrestling,” she said. “I’ll have a real job and living life. I’m only going to be this age once. I want to wrestle. I want to take advantage of all I can take out of this sport until I physically can take no more.”

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