Champion wrestler fighting to give more girls in Florida chance to hit mat

Founder of ‘Wrestle Like a Girl’ calls sport game-changer for girls, wants it sanctioned in Florida

A world class wrestler has a mission to help other young women grapple for their goals.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – One Florida organization is trying to make sure girls who wrestle get the same recognition as boys.

Even though 900 girls wrestle at the high school level, they must do so on the boys teams. Girls wrestling is not a sanctioned sport in Florida.

Sally Roberts, a three-time national champion, 2003 World Cup Champion, 2003 and 2005 world bronze medalist and 2008 Olympic alternate, founded “Wrestle Like a Girl” to change that.

Roberts has called the sport a game-changer for girls everywhere.

“I’ve watched girls go from a sheep to the leader of the room,” Roberts said. “It’s the perfect opportunity to teach girls resilience, confidence, sisterhood, teamwork.”

Roberts travels the country, lobbying to get states like Florida to sanction the sport. She said allowing girls to wrestle other girls, instead of boys, boosts their confidence and lowers their injuries.

Even though 900 girls wrestle at the high school level in Florida, they must do so on the boys teams. (WJXT)

The sport is currently sanctioned in 32 states. In June 2020, the Florida High School Athletic Association’s Board of Directors voted unanimously to sanction the sport for this upcoming school year. In June 2021, the same board tabled the vote until September to recognize girls wrestling as an FHSAA champion sport.

Jamie Harrison, a coach at Riot Performance Academy, said some 700 girls have wrestled at the state championships, even without the sport being sanctioned.

For wrestler Madisyn Blackburn, that is not enough.

“I want to be in that arena. This is my sport,” Blackburn said. “All of these girls in the past years haven’t had that chance. I want to be there and have that chance.”

Blackburn credited the sport with building her confidence, endurance and strength. In seventh grade, wrestling was the only team she made, despite trying out for several sports. But the next year, she made the track and flag football teams.

As for Roberts, she said the sport saved her from a challenging home life.

“I would go out after school and shoplift. I broke into houses,” Roberts said. “I actually got arrested so many times that I was put in front of a juvenile detention officer who told me that if I didn’t find an afternoon sport, I’d be facing juvenile detention.”

She has seen it help other girls in similar situations.

Roberts argues the sport should be open to everyone no matter their size. She said that teaches girls how to own their space, their voice and their bodies, while also teaching them self-defense.

“When they look at themselves in the mirror, they’re no longer just girls or women,” she said. “They’re athletes and they’re proud; they’re confident.”

Sanctioned vs. recognized sport?

A sport that is fully sanctioned gets its own regional and state series postseason tournament. In wrestling, that means an individual bracketed tournament where wrestlers are seeded and advance through district and region tournaments. The end goal is to qualify and wrestle in a true state championship. To follow that path now, girls have to wrestle in the boys tournament. Sanctioning girls wrestling would create a standalone season and tournament identical to what boys currently have.

As a recognized sport, there is no true FHSAA state series playoffs or championship. Sports that carry recognized status typically have a third party organize postseason events, but it’s not quite the same.

About the Authors:

At WJXT for a quarter of a century, Mary Baer anchors the 5, 6 and 10 p.m. news weekdays.