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CLINTON, S.C. (FOX Carolina) - There's a sports wrestling revolution taking the nation over: women's wrestling. It's no longer just an amateur event, either, and a South Carolina college is leading the charge in legitimizing it.
Presbyterian College, located in Clinton, is the smallest college in NCAA Division I athletics. But size doesn't matter when it comes to leading; Presbyterian has started the first women's wrestling team in NCAA D-I. And now, the sport is exploding.
Women's wrestling is quickly growing, with 22,000 girls wrestling at the high school level. But as of now, it's only sanctioned at the prep level in 21 states. Neither North Carolina nor South Carolina have officially sanctioned it yet. This means for most of the time, girls have to wrestle the boys.
Some girls don't like this arrangement. Others say it helps make them tougher. But what the girls we talked to agree on is that they want to take the mat and grapple in their own class of girls.
Against odds and doubters
Lillian Humphries is a sophomore at Presbyterian College, and she's on the team. We caught up with her on a rare night of relaxation.
Lillian and her team, known as the Blue Hose, just finished their first match.
"It means a lot to me," Lillian tells us. "It means a lot to the little girl I was when I was wrestling the boys with just how far women's wrestling has come in such a short amount of time."
Lillian's coach is Dany Deanda, whose story resonated with Lillian. Lillian's loved for martial arts evolved into wrestling as a freshman at Blue Ridge High School. She was the only girl on the all-boys varsity team. And just like her teammates then, all of her opponents were boys too.
"When I first started wrestling, I got beat up a lot, and I felt discouraged a lot, and didn't feel like I'm getting any better," she admitted to us. "And I did want to quit. But then I thought if I quit, people would just say 'I told you so'. So I really had to push myself and tell myself that I'd get better step by step."
Lillian's father, John Humphries, was part of her push to keep getting better.
"She took a bad beating that year, and I never told her she could quit. But if she had come to me and said 'I'm going to do something different', I'd say OK. But she hung in there."
Lillian tells us a lot of the pressure was external, saying people would tell her she wasn't good enough, wasn't going to make it, wasn't going to do anything with wrestling.
"And that hurt my feelings a lot. But that pushed me to want to prove everybody wrong and become a D-I wrestler."
Which is exactly what she became.
A lot of Lillian's teammates share the same story. Hannah McElroy told us "In high school, I was the only girl wrestling, and I had a lot of refs and coaches that didn't respect me. I had a lot of other athletes that didn't respect me."
For Deanda, her job is to make sure respect is part of the team's values, and ensure that all is addresed.
"A lot of these athletes came from the same situation I did," she tells us. "Not every state is sanctioned with women's wrestling. So all of our athletes on the team understand that grind of wrestling the men in high school. I mean, I think a lot of us share that same upbringing throughout the sport, and hopefully as my daughter goes through it and the younger girls do, they can just wrestle other girls."
The next generation's struggle to the mat
Even as the sport continues to grow, getting girls to face other girls on the mat is still an issue.
Karleigh and Kyleigh Langley from Belton are nine and eight years old respectively. When we met with them, we saw them spending downtime as sisters playing with Barbie dolls. They're absolutely cute as a button then.
But when they get to the mat, they're a force to be reckoned with. Their struggles in wrestling are similarly echoed in the classroom.
"Some kids in my class yell and say that wrestling's only for boys, and that girls can't wrestle," Karleigh told us. Kyleigh echoed this as well.
But the sisters are already champions on the youth circuit, getting their revenge on the boys on the mat. That's on top of the brutal physical toll of amateur wrestling, the dieting required, the conditioning needed.
But when you're the only girl in an arena of boys, the biggest fight is in your mind.
"When I went to tournaments and stuff, I'd get looks from people," Lillian says. "My parents could hear other people talking about me in the stands."
Then comes the second biggest fight: getting to wrestle at all. John and his wife, Vicki, tell us two high schools forfeited matches instead of playing against their daughter's team, and his daughter was subjected to sexist comments and hand gestures from opposing teams and parents. It's required a lot of restraint from him.
"We were sitting in the crowd and we're hearing other parents scream 'you better not let a girl beat you'," he remarked. "There's not a teenage boy in South Carolina that wants to get pinned by a girl in front of all his buddies."
Vicki concurred, noting how many times she had to bite her tongue for a greater good.
"It was hard. You'd sit up there in the stands and hear parents say 'oh my gosh, there's a girl out there?', so you have to sit up there and not say a word because you want the sport to grow," she told us. "We say the change because it went from 'there's a girl out there' to 'that's that girl, you want to watch your game with her'."
Lillian and her parents slogged through match after match, loss after loss, never quitting. And then finally, she got the pin for the win. Her parents told us that the boy she beat threw his headgear and cried behind the bleachers.
They say Lillian never did that.
"There were several times where I had guys who came out there and was like 'This'll be nothing. I'll beat this girl'," Lillian told us. "And I have videos of it, where I then pin them and they sit up like 'what just happened'. And you can't underestimate me just 'cause I'm a girl."
Lillian admits the struggle is exactly that: a struggle. It isn't always fun. But soaking in the victory made it worth it, and it's even more worth it now with the validation she sees at the college level.
Four years since that fateful match, and with more than 30 wins against the guys under her belt, Lillian was set to sign with a college in Montana to wrestle. Then she saw what the smallest school in D-I was doing, and took the leap with Presbyterian College to make history.
Blazing the trail
More recently, the Presbyterian team debuted in a three-team tournament, with teams from Life University and Limestone College making up the other participants. The latter two schools are lower divisions, but the leaders for all the teams involved say their shared stories of the struggle are helping them light the flame even more.
"We're creating a community in the state of South Carolina to show that women's wrestling is here. It's in our high schools, it's in our youth clubs," said Limestone College women's wrestling coach Brandy Green.
Tony Deanda, who is Dany's husband, serves as the head coach for Presbyterian's men's team and assistant coach for the women. He says it's exciting to see what the women are doing to pave the way forward.
"We're spearheading that charge with this being the first D-I women's program," he says. "We've talked to them about how important this whole movement is here on campus with the program being started and told them they're the foundation of what's to come, where hopefully it kickstarts others to do the same thing."
Mark Cody agrees. If that name seems familiar to the wrestling community, it's because of his rockstar status: he's in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and is the director for both of Presbyterian's teams.
"We're on the forefront of something really special," he says. "There's a lot of programs that are trying to start women's D-I wrestling, and to be the first to do that, it's really special for us here."
He promises that people who haven't seen women's wrestling are in for a treat, and that there won't be a boring match. And for the girls like Humphries and McElroy, they are eager to lead the way to those matches.
"It's monumental, it's paving the way for girls' wrestling everywhere," McElroy says. "It's setting the way for high schoolers that don't think they're going to be able to do something more, that there's going to be something bigger like D-I out there for them."
And monumental it is. The sport is exploding in spite of sexist perceptions and self-doubt. It's a victory for the girls, and for their parents.
"I almost want to say the door's been kicked wide open," Vicki Humphries says. "Girls are realizing that just because they're girls doesn't mean they have to go away from a male-dominated sport."
That gives hope for girls like Karleigh and Kyleigh, the phenoms from Belton. Karleigh says the girls leading the way at Presbyterian are inspirational and make the struggles on the mat worth it.
"Thanks for making it, because some boys can back down girls from wrestling," she said in a special message to the ladies at Presbyterian.
Lillian Humphries didn't back down from the long, often unjust road. But she hopes the path is much easier for the Langley sisters and girls just like them.
Relaxation is rare for the wrestler, but Lillian knows she can take respite in this victory before the next match.
What's next for high schools in South Carolina?
FOX Carolina asked for comment from the South Carolina High School League on the prospect of girls' wrestling getting sanctioned at the prep level in the palmetto state. They responded:
"Currently we do not have a separate division of girls wrestling in the SCHSL. Female wrestlers compete with the boys teams. This year we implemented a new rule that allows for female wrestlers to compete representing their schools up to three times without it counting as a date used by the boys teams. This was done in an effort to grow the female side of the sport. It is our goal that we can offer a girls invitational at the SCHSL State Individual Championships in the next few years, as the numbers of female participants continues to grow. "