County wrestling does flip As girls strive to find a place, reaction is mixed

January 28, 1993|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Staff Writer

Adam Seidman became the most successful wrestler in county history this month for Oakland Mills. Hammond's wrestling program appears ready to win its first county tournament. Next month's tournament is shaping us as the most competitive in years.

And yet, the 1992-93 wrestling season might as well be called The Year of the Girl.

This is the year Wilde Lake sophomore Maria Romano, Hammond freshman Sarah Himmelheber and Oakland Mills freshman Stacy Kirschbaum turned the sport upside down, or at least sideways.

Did you catch Himmelheber's second-period pin of Kirschbaum two weeks ago? Although it was only an exhibition, no varsity bout that night elicited the kind of roaring crowd reaction those girls produced.

At last week's Oakland Mills-Wilde Lake match, a local TV crew showed up. But it didn't come to see Seidman or Wilde Lake's Nate Casella or Mike Green, each of whom is ranked in the state's top six in their respective weight classes. It came to see Romano and Kirschbaum.

First, in a junior varsity match, Romano survived for three periods before losing, 17-3, to Justin Robbins. Later, in an exhibition that again featured the evening's loudest crowd response, Romano pinned Kirschbaum.

Some wrestling purists may be losing sleep over such radical developments. I can hear them now.

"Get those girls out of here," they're saying. "They're making a mockery of our sport. There are boys all over the county turning long hours of work into success, and these girls are stealing their hard-earned glory. They don't belong here. It's nothing but a sideshow."

Although these girls say they decided to wrestle because of their love of the sport, not for the attention they've attracted, they have injected the sport with the season's hottest controversy.

Do girls belong on the wrestling mat with boys? Yes, according to the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association. The MPSSAA handbook states that if a sport is offered to only one sex, members of the excluded sex must be allowed to try out.

Rules aside, though, do girls belong on the wrestling mat with boys? If you measure that right by how much success they can expect to enjoy, then the answer is no.

Look at Romano. No one can question her work ethic or her dedication. Since being exposed to wrestling during middle school in physical education class -- her teacher was Rich Jackson, Wilde Lake's coach -- she has been hooked on the sport. She plays volleyball and runs track, but Romano says she trains year-round for wrestling.

Last year, she failed to win a match. This year, she is 3-5, having recorded each victory by forfeit. Unlike last year, when she never made it through three periods against a boy, she has done it twice this season. Her goal is to win the county title in her senior year.

"As long as I keep lifting and keep working really hard, I can beat these guys," she said.

Is that realistic? Hardly. That's no fault of Romano's. Blame biology. Romano can't help it if, with a rare exception, any boy she wrestles is going to be stronger than she. From adolescence that's just the way it goes. Boys are bigger, stronger, faster. That's why they compete separately in soccer, cross country, basketball and lacrosse, to name a few.

Even the coaches and fellow wrestlers who are rooting for these girls express mixed feelings about their presence.

Darius Green, a Wilde Lake teammate who wrestles Romano occasionally in practice, said, "I guess it's hard to accept, but you learn to accept it. I'm not going to down them [girls] if they want to do it and if they work hard like Maria. But I'm not going to advise them [girls] to [wrestle]. I'd rather not see boys beating up on girls."

Seidman said, "If Maria had strength like the guys had, she'd be VTC real good. If her goal is to keep close, she'll have a successful year. But if her goal is to win a lot of matches, I don't think that's going to happen. People are just going to out-muscle her."

Hammond coach Bill Smith wishes half his boys went about their business with the kind of desire Himmelheber displays. In the same breath, Smith counters, "The attitude in the wrestling room is one I perceive as male-oriented. The nature of the sport is to be touched in places where you don't normally get touched. I have four daughters, and I love wrestling. And they will never wrestle."

The best solution would be to create female wrestling as a sport. That would accommodate girls who want to pursue wrestling, and it would preserve the spirit of competition.

That will not happen before adequate interest is demonstrated by girls. And they aren't exactly signing up in droves these days.

Who knows what could happen down the road, though? Women now are wrestling at the international level. The Women's World Wrestling Championships have been contested since 1989, and last year Tricia Sanders of Phoenix, Ariz., became the first American to win a gold medal. The meet in France drew 26 teams, the largest field in the history of the event.

"Maybe in the next 15 years or so, that [high school female wrestling in Howard County] might happen," Romano said. "Not now, because of the budget situation, first of all. I think once the budget gets fixed and enough people want to do it, it could happen."

And if it does, Maria Romano won't be remembered as part of a sideshow. She'll be remembered as a pioneer.

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