Beyond Sports: NCHS's Wood and Normal West's Lehr show girl power in the 1st IHSA girls wrestling finals
Two girls from Bloomington-Normal say they are ready to help make history as the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) hosts its first state competition in girls wrestling this weekend.
Sammy Lehr of Normal West High School and Pyper Wood at Normal Community are both juniors. Both have won a majority of their matches this year and have wrestled mostly against boys for much of their careers. They will compete in the IHSA sectionals at Peoria Richwoods High School starting Friday.
In this edition of Beyond Sports, Lehr and Wood say they both got involved in the sport because their brothers wrestled. Lehr’s father is a wrestling coach at Normal West. Her mother, Margaret Lehr, was the first female high school wrestler in Illinois history.
Sammy Lehr said she too wanted to break through the boys club.
“A lot of guys underestimate female wrestlers and sometimes they don’t even want to wrestle girls. They just don’t think (we) are as good at the sport,” Lehr said. “So, it’s definitely more challenging.”
Wood has two brothers who have wrestled. She said there's more strategy when it comes to wrestling other girls. “When you wrestle a guy, they will try to easily outmuscle you and girls not so much,” Wood said.
Wood, who has a 10-2 record this year, said she expects to do well this weekend.
“I’m confident that I’ll make it to state (finals),” Wood said noting that she qualified for state competition through the Illinois Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association (IWCOA) in 2020, but the finals were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The top four wrestlers in each weight class quality of the state meet at Grossinger Motors Arena on Feb. 25-26.
Lehr said her experience in all-girls wrestling meets this year has prepared her to go up against the best girl grapplers in the state. “I do believe I have a good chance of placing and making it further than sectionals because of my past in wrestling other girls in this sport,” Lehr said.
Lehr and Piper both said eating healthy and stayed hydrated are key to making weight for their matches, often one of the largest physical hurdles many wrestlers face. Wood wrestles in the 120-pound weight class but plans to drop down to the 115-pound class for the state competition. Lehr said maintaining weight is less of an issue for her because she started wrestling at 86 pounds, well below the lowest weight class of 106.
Both Lehr and Wood are involved in other sports and school activities. Lehr run cross country and track. She’s also a member of the National Honor Society at Normal West, the outdoor adventure club and freshman mentoring program. Wood swims and competes on the NCHS math team.
Lehr said she would like to continue wrestling in college. More schools have started to add the sport for women, but most are smaller schools and few offer athletic scholarships. Wood said she plans to focus more on other sports in college.
Growing the sport
While Lehr and Wood are both focused on upcoming matches this weekend, they’d like to see schools devote more resources to attract more girls to the sport they love. Normal Community and Normal West have fewer than 10 girls’ wrestlers between them. The boys’ coaches also direct the girls.
Lehr said having a dedicated coach for the girls would encourage more girls to participate and that would make it easier for girls to find female competitors. She added she’d like the coaches to encourage more girls to wrestle, or at least give them a chance to try it before they have to commit.
Margaret Lehr made that case to the Unit 5 school board last fall. She said she’s grateful to see the IHSA officially recognize the sport.
“The acknowledgement by the state that there is validity in girls needing this sport and deserving this sport and that’s really important.” Lehr said. “It’s exploding across the United States,” she said, noting Illinois is one of more than 30 states that has sanctioned girls wrestling.
The latest data from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFSHA) in 2019 indicated there were 676 girls competing in high school wrestling in Illinois.
During the last 10 years of survey data, participation in boys wrestling dropped 13% in Illinois from 2009 to 2019.