It’s 2011. Cassy Herkelman ran out to the mat at the Iowa State High School Wrestling Tournament. With her singlet on and headgear strapped, she saw no sign of her opponent, Joel Northrup.
Northrup forfeited the match, making Herkelman the first female to win a match at the state wrestling tournament.
“I was ready to wrestle, because I had prepared for the state tournament just like every other wrestler in the state, male or female,” Herkelman said.
This past Iowa high school wrestling season, there were 92 female wrestlers on rosters, with 37 of those having wrestled recorded matches, Lewie Curtis of the Iowa High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) said.
Curtis also said that females are allowed to participate on men’s wrestling teams, if there is no comparable sport offered through the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union (IGHSAU).
“Obviously, getting girls wrestling added to the IGHSAU list of sports is also a big challenge, but one that can be overcome,” Curtis said.
Herkelman got her start in wrestling at six years old at a family Christmas celebration, with inspiration from her grandmother.
A wrestler of Cedar Falls High School, Herkelman was welcomed to the boy’s wrestling team with open arms from head coach Ethan Wiechmann.
“For us, it was never about ‘allowing’ a female on the team,” Wiechmann said. “It was about clearing any obstacles in the way to provide her the opportunities to compete at the level she deserved.”
Now a collegiate wrestler on the women’s wrestling team at McKendree University in Lebanon, Illinois, Herkelman is continuing her career at the next level.
In order for a women’s wrestling program to be instated at a college, teams can apply to become a sport within the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)’s Emerging Sports for Women Program.
“The emerging sports program was created to grow meaningful participation opportunities for female student-athletes and reach the number of teams to be considered for NCAA championships,” Richard Zhu, Coordinator of Inclusion for the NCAA, said.
Currently, there are 33 colleges that offer women’s wrestling as a sanctioned sport, according to the Women’s College Wrestling Association (WCWA).
Waldorf University in Forest City, Iowa is the only women’s wrestling program in the state.
“Waldorf University takes tremendous pride in the fact that it’s the pioneer in the effort to bring women’s wrestling to Iowa, due to its reputation as a state with a rich wrestling tradition and is also regarded as the epicenter of collegiate wrestling,” Waldorf’s Assistant Athletic Director for Media Relations, Matt Oliver, said.
At Wartburg College, the men’s wrestling program holds the NCAA record for the most championships with 13. With that success, former head coach, Jim Miller, believes a women’s wrestling program could be successful at Wartburg.
“Our brand in wrestling is outstanding,” Miller said. “It is one of the best brands in the America. If a young lady’s sport is wrestling and a place like Wartburg offered wrestling, of course it would peak their interest.”
A National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA) Board of Directors member, Jeff Voss, said women’s wrestling at the collegiate level can impact the sport as a whole.
“A major positive will be the starting of girls programs in college,” Voss said. “The more girls competing, the more demand for girls to compete at the collegiate level.”
Herkelman’s career was full of challenges from parents not wanting their son to wrestle Herkelman or parents telling her she should not be wrestling, which Wiechmann believes she handled well.
“It is always hard to pave a new trail,” Wiechmann said. “Schools were having to make special accommodations, which we had to adjust to at every location.”
Herkelman said the biggest change she made is in the difference of wrestling styles. In high school, she wrestled folkstyle, which is the standard style for high school and men’s collegiate wrestling.
In college, she wrestles freestyle, which is the same style used in Olympic competition.
Women’s wrestling became an Olympic sport in 2004, according to the International Olympic Committee.
The Olympic competition of women’s wrestling is one that Wiechmann is familiar with.
“I went to the Olympic Trials in Iowa City last year, and I remember walking away being very impressed with the senior women’s division,” Wiechmann said. “I enjoyed watching the athletes compete and the passion they brought to the sport.”
Herkelman, a junior at McKendree, has compiled a 40-16 record over two seasons. She did not wrestle this past season, due to a torn ACL, MCL and meniscus.
During the 2015-16 season, Herkelman placed 7th at the national tournament in the 136 pound weight class.
“I continued to wrestle throughout college, because it is something I enjoy doing,” Herkelman said. “The sport has changed my life.”