Girl wrestlers step up to the mats in historic first

Robert Galbreath photo The 2022-2023 PHS girls’ wrestling team. Pictured in front, from left, are manager Lyssa Kaul, Maddox Gehlhausen, Kaylea Mortensen, Rhonda Auradou, McKinzie Mortensen and manager Karlee Nelson. In back, from left, are manager Tyler Nance, Sarah Helm, Samantha Brannan, Katyana Dexter, Morgan Grossman, Alexis Thompson and manager Jazmun Mortensen.

PINEDALE – Joining the wrestling team felt like a natural step for Pinedale High School (PHS) senior Maddox Gehlhausen.

Her father and uncle both grappled in high school. Gehlhausen’s cousins wrestled for the Wranglers and went on to compete at Chadron State College.

Sidelined by an injury her freshman year, Gehlhausen hit the mats with determination her sophomore and junior years.

The Wyoming High School Activities Association allowed girls to join boys’ wrestling teams in 1998. While girls’ wrestling gained traction over the next two decades, male athletes outnumbered females by a wide margin in most programs across Wyoming.

As a result, Gehlhausen found herself competing against boys in nearly every round, bracket and tournament as a sophomore.

“Wrestling guys puts you at a disadvantage because they automatically have more strength,” said Gehlhausen.

Gehlhausen gritted through the frustration of wrestling opponents with a natural edge up.

The situation began to change during Gehlhausen’s junior year. Several large wrestling events in the region, notably the Ron Thon Memorial Tournament in Riverton, organized separate brackets for girls.

Contending in an all-female bracket, Gehlhausen captured third place in her weight division at the 2022 Ron Thon Memorial.

On April 27, the Wyoming High School Activities Association (WHSAA) Board of Directors approved girls’ wrestling as an officially sanctioned sport with its own culminating state tournament. The Equality State became the 32nd state to adopt girls’ wrestling, reflecting a spike in the sport’s popularity.

“Girls’ wrestling is one of the fastest-growing sports in the country,” said Head PHS Wrestling Coach Kendall Horrocks.

Eleven female athletes, ranging from freshmen to seniors, signed up to wrestle on PHS’s inaugural girls’ team.

The wave of interest in girls wrestling is “significant” because the sport offers a wide range of benefits, Horrocks said.

“Girls’ wrestling will instill in female athletes confidence, mental toughness, self esteem, grit, self reliance and discipline,” he added. “It encourages physical fitness, builds character, teaches highschoolers how to overcome obstacles, handle their emotions, respect authority and the importance of being a good teammate. Ultimately, wrestling teaches that success has to be earned through hard work and success.”

A few athletes on the girls’ team, like Gehlhausen, come to the sport with years of experience under their belts. Most of the female athletes in Pinedale, and across the state, are new to the sport.

“We will do our best as coaches to help the new athletes learn the skills to be successful,” Horrocks said. “I am very optimistic about the future of girls wrestling in Pinedale and across the state. It is only going to increase and get more competitive as the years progress.”

The WHSAA’s decision and the formation of a girls wrestling team at PHS played a significant role in Gehlhausen’s decision to continue grappling.

“I think having an even playing field is going to be a great thing,” she said.

Taking on the unknown

Seniors Morgan Grossman and Rhonda Auradou leapt at the opportunity to join the girls wrestling team. The pair competed on the Sublette County combined girls’ swim team since they were freshmen and wrestling offered a novel opportunity.

“I did swimming for seven-plus years, and I wanted to do something new, experience a different sport,” said Grossman.

Grossman and Auradou grew up around wrestling. Grossman’s father excelled on the mat.

“Nobody could pin him,” she said.

Grossman hopes to follow in his footsteps.

“My dad is a huge inspiration for me and he always has been,” she said. “I really wanted to do wrestling and prove to my dad that I can be strong and can do the sport.”

Auradou’s father was also a wrestler and played a “big role” in her decision to join.

“My sister and I used to watch wrestling with our dad and that sparked our interest,” Auradou said. “When (the WHSAA) finally got a girls team going, I was super excited because I finally have a chance to try wrestling. It’s my senior year. If I don’t like wrestling, okay, that’s fine. But I might not get a chance to try it again.”

The example Gehlhausen set was another significant factor in getting Auradou and Grossman to go out for wrestling.

“Maddox encouraged me to go through with this and join the team,” said Auradou. “We go over the basics with her a lot and she helps us catch up with the boys.”

Grossman agreed that Gehlhausen will be a crucial resource through the season.

“We’re going to go to Maddox a lot and ask, ‘What does this rule mean? Did I do something illegal?’” Grossman said.

The verdict after two weeks of practice?

“I think they’re doing pretty well,” said Gehlhausen of her teammates. “For the majority of them being newbies, they’re picking wrestling up on the spot and rolling with it.”

During the summer, Auradou, Grossman and Gehlhausen each attended a weeklong camp in Rock Springs designed to prepare girls of all ages for the upcoming wrestling season.

“A lot of us were really new (to wrestling), so Rock Springs was like an introductory camp-slash-work on the basics,” said Auradou.

“There were 10-year-olds that were actually kicking our butts,” said Grossman.

The trio is eager for competition to begin.

“I’m excited for some home meets so people can see what girls’ wrestling is about,” said Auradou.

“And see how much cooler we are than the boys,” said Grossman.

The ultimate highlight is the opportunity for the girls to compete in their own state tournament and the prospect of bringing home some hardware.

“I think the girls have a lot of potential to maybe get the first trophy (for Pinedale) at State and do really well this year,” said Grossman. “A lot of our girls are strong, strong-willed and really determined.”

“State – I just want to experience it,” said Auradou. “I think it is going to be so cool to be a part of something like that.”

In the meantime, the girls are preparing for the first meet featuring a separate girls’ division, the Evanston Invitational on Dec. 9-10.

“I’m pretty nervous about it, but I’m also really excited,” said Grossman.

“I just want to feel proud of whatever happens and enjoy this experience,” said Auradou.

The season-opener is “always nerve-wracking,” Gehlhausen advised.

“I feel like once we get out on the mat, do our first match, we’ll all be good,” Gehlhausen added.

Auradou, Gehlhausen and Grossman hope more girls will join the program.

“If you still want to wrestle and you’re a girl, you really should take the chance and experience this opportunity because it’s worth it,” Grossman said. “It’s not too late to join. Let’s get more girls in here.”

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