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U.S. women's wrestling team trains in IC

BY SAM LOUWAGIE | DECEMBER 01, 2011 7:20 AM

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Elena Pirozhkova knew "for a fact" that she was about to lose.

Pirozhkova is a world-class wrestler. In 2010 alone, she won championships in the U.S. World Team Trials, Pan American Championships, and the U.S. Open.

But so many years ago — she can't remember where the tournament was or her exact age at the time — Pirozhkova was a high-schooler preparing to wrestle an intimidating opponent in a semifinal match. She knew she couldn't beat him.

But then, rather than wrestle against a girl, he forfeited.

Pirozhkova said she didn't feel outraged or embarrassed. Her reaction was simpler.

"Sucks to be him," the Greenfield, Mass., native remembered thinking. "He doesn't get a chance to win."

That response reflects an attitude several top wrestlers on the U.S. national women's team have. The United States took home the world's second-highest medal count in the first-ever Olympic women's wrestling competition, in 2004. In 2008, they were third.

As the team spends the week training in Carver-Hawkeye Arena in preparation for April's U.S. Olympic Trials, the wrestlers insisted their main goal is not to legitimize women's wrestling or to earn respect for a typically male-dominated sport.

They just want to wrestle — and to win.

"I don't do it to make a point," 2008 World Freestyle champion Clarissa Chun said. "I do it because I love it."

Teammate Ali Bernard said representing women was "a bonus" secondary to winning medals.

Although the team's athletes say they aren't concerned with changing public perception of women in the sport, the coach knows that it's part of his job.

"I knew that USA Wrestling wasn't just looking for a coach," former Hawkeye national champion Terry Steiner said about his 2002 hiring. "It was looking for an advocate. I knew I was going to have to stand up to the naysayers out there and was going to have to back it 110 percent."

Steiner may have been a naysayer himself once. After his career at Iowa, Steiner spent two seasons at Oregon State as an assistant coach and six at Wisconsin. He said his singular goal was to be a Division-I head coach.

But then USA Wrestling came calling in search of its first-ever women's coach, and Steiner had some thinking to do.

"At first it was a curve ball, and it took me some time to get through that," he said. "But I really had to ask myself, 'Why do I coach? Why do I want to stay in this sport?' And it's because I believe in the sport of wrestling. I believe in what it teaches and its character development. And if that's the case, why would I want to limit that to half the population?"

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, wrestling is "the fastest-growing sport for high-school girls in terms of percentage increase."

But women still face some scrutiny when they enter the sport. Pirozhkova said for much of her prep career, people thought she joined "to touch guys." Chun said "creeps" will occasionally ask her if it's mud or oil wrestling she participates in.

But Chun said respect for the sport would increase if people only got the chance to see them train.

"I think so. A good, hard practice, to see how hard we work," she said. " It's a tough sport."

Follow DI wrestling reporter Sam Louwagie on Twitter.


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